Archives for May 2016

In Praise of the Long Sentence.

From Gerald Murnane’s “In Praise of the Long Sentence” (Meanjin, Autumn 2016), a crotchety but interesting essay:

In 1986 I was invited, along with several other writers, to give a short talk at the Melbourne Writers Festival on the subject ‘Why I write what I write’. I was not surprised when the other writers talked about childhood experiences, subjects that inspired them, or concerns that drove them to write. I chose to talk about none of these, and my short speech must have impressed at least one member of the audience, the then editor of Meanjin, Judith Brett, who published the speech a few months later. My speech began ‘I write sentences. I write first one sentence, then another sentence. I write sentence after sentence…’ I made no mention of grammar in my speech. I spoke more about such matters as the shape of meaning, the sound of sense, the contour of thought. These were all expressions I had learned from other writers’ efforts to explain why some writing, to put it simply, is better than other writing. I quoted a remarkable passage by Virginia Woolf in which she claimed: ‘A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it … and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.’ I wrote my speech 30 years ago, and I’m as pleased with it today as I was then, but I acknowledge that my essay, so to call it, is no sort of compelling argument for grammatically sound sentences. Rather, it seems to suggest that I trusted for most of my life in a sort of instinct. I trusted in a sort of instinct and looked only for apt or suggestive forms of words, and yet I never needed to violate the principles of traditional grammar. […]

Several times during the writing of this piece, I may have seemed to be trying to justify my use of long sentences. Certainly, I left off writing this piece now and then and pondered on my liking for such sentences and my interest in punctuation and traditional grammar. These preferences of mine may have a simpler explanation than I sometimes try to find. During the first ten years of my life, I was closer in time to the nineteenth century than to the present century. For most of my childhood I read books written long before my birth, books by R.L. Stevenson, Charles Kingsley, Charles Reade, William Henry Hudson. Even our English textbooks at secondary school recommended the prose of Charles Lamb, Thomas Hardy, George Borrow. I long ago gave up reading contemporary writers, but I still look often into Hardy’s novels or Lavengro or The Romany Rye. Perhaps I learned the subtle rhythms of left-branching nineteenth-century prose in the same way that the authors of that prose learned the rhythms of their Cicero or their Livy. I would be far from disappointed to learn that this is so.

Anyone who refuses to like or understand contemporary art is self-doomed to irrelevance (which is not the same as inferiority), and anyone who claims “to know more about sentences than Thomas Pynchon or Frank Kermode” is in some sense a blithering idiot, but I like his statement “that meaning for me was connection; that a thing had meaning for me if it was connected with another thing.” Via wood s lot.

Translate These Books!

Will Firth, a translator from Russian, Serbo-Croatian, and Macedonian, has posted “10 Books by Women We’d Like to See Translated: Balkan Edition.” I love this sort of thing, and the books sound interesting; two that particularly struck my fancy:

Hodler en Mostar (Hodler in Mostar), Spomenka Štimec (Edistudio, 2006)

This historical novel is partly about the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler but rather more about his model of many years’ standing, Jeanne Charles Cerani. After the two part ways, Jeanne marries a Bosnian soldier wounded in WWI, who later joins the Yugoslav diplomatic service. A collection of Hodler’s paintings follows Jeanne and her husband on their many postings and finally ends up in Mostar. A union of two quite different worlds.

Gospođa Black (Mrs Black), Olja Knežević (Vijesti, 2015)

Written as a first-person report, the author’s second “London novel” is about a woman from Montenegro who marries a somewhat older Englishman and grafts herself into British society. Just when she feels she has comfortably adapted, ghosts of the past catch up with her. An interesting look at the problems of women in society amplified by the jarring contrast of a wealthy, stable country and a country from the underbelly of Europe.

Here‘s a post from last year on a similar topic, and I will renew “my decade-old lament at the absence of a translation of Abdelrahman Munif’s historical novel Ard Al-Sawad.”

Corpus Corporum.

From the About page:

The site is a Latin text (meta-)repository and tool under way of development. Users should take into account that some functions do not yet work satisfactorily. This Corpus Córporum is being developed at the University of Zurich under the direction of Ph. Roelli, Institute for Greek and Latin Philology. The project uses exclusively free and open software and is non-commercial. Our main goals are:

– To provide a platform into which standardised (TEI) xml-files of Latin texts can be loaded (if you would like to share your texts, please contact us) and downloaded (unless copyrights or the texts’ providers restrict this).

– To make these texts searchable in complex manners (including proximity search and lemmatised search). Search results, wordlists and concordances can be generated for the current text level at the bottom left of the page (we use the open-source software Sphinx).

– To be able to use the platform to publish Latin texts online (cf. the Richard Rufus Project’s corpus).

– Texts may be downloaded as TEI xml or txt-files for non-commercial use (in snippets also as pdf) and can thus be reused by other researchers.

The texts are divided into corpora on a specific topic that can be searched and studied separately: the first such corpus consists of ten translations of Aristotle’s Physica into Latin. They were used to study how technical Greek language could be translated into Latin. Word frequency lists are also on the server.

The internet gets better and better. Thanks, Bruce!

Why She Learned Korean.

This BBC story is a very interesting account of why Deborah Smith, who translated Han Kang’s prize-winning novel The Vegetarian, learned the language:

Smith, whose only language was English until she was 21, decided to become a translator on finishing her English Literature degree having noticed the lack of English-Korean translators. She said she was “certainly not a born Korean speaker” and still spoke Korean “very much like somebody who learned it from a textbook”.

“I had no connection with Korean culture – I don’t think I had even met a Korean person – but I wanted to become a translator because it combined reading and writing and I wanted to learn a language.

“Korean seemed like a strangely obvious choice, because it is a language which practically nobody in this country studies or knows.”

She said she initially tried to translate the book for a publisher after only learning Korean for two years, but the translation was “awful”. However, after publisher Portobello Books asked her if she had a Korean book that would be “right for their list”, she had another go at translating a year later. […]

Deborah Smith taught herself Korean and was smart enough to spot there was a need for translators to turn the language into high-quality English – which she managed brilliantly with The Vegetarian. The prose is relaxed and idiomatic but it’s powerful. There isn’t a paragraph or turn of phrase which feels like it didn’t originate in English.

The story is deliberately mysterious but Smith said she couldn’t ever call up Han Kang to ask how a particular event or character was to be regarded. “I didn’t have any way of contacting her and, as a first-time translator, I wasn’t even sure what the etiquette was. Was I even allowed to ask questions? So I just got on with putting the book into English.”

I hope her story encourages other people to learn lesser-known languages and become translators. Thanks, Paul and Eric!


I imagine I first knew of Lydia Lopokova as the wife of John Maynard Keynes, and I probably said her name mentally as “Lo-POCK-ova.” Eventually I learned that her actual (Russian) surname was Lopukhova (la-pu-KHO-və), but I never really adjusted my mental audio file, because the two versions were too different to reconcile and I never had any reason to think about her. Now John Freedman of Russian Culture in Landmarks has posted about her, and the first paragraph both explains how the renaming came about and exacerbates my feeling that something went terribly wrong:

Most of the world knows her as Lydia Lopokova, although she was born and grew up in St. Petersburg as Lidia Lopukhova. The “pseudonym” (if you’re generous) or the abomination of her real name (if you’re honest) was visited upon us by Sergei Diaghilev. When he hired Lopukhova to join the Ballets Russes in 1910, he resolved that the world would not know what to do with the “Lopukhova” configuration… as though “Lopokova” were a great improvement. But history is what it is (just for the record, Russian folk wisdom calls it a turkey) so we have what we have: Lydia Lopokova (1892-1981), one of the stars of the Ballets Russes. She never again lived in Russia and, for many years, lived at this house at 46 Gordon Square, Kings Cross, London, with her husband John Maynard Keynes, the famed economist and member of the Bloomsbury group of intellectuals.

I simply can’t imagine how Diaghilev could have come up with that; I can see simplifying the kh to k for Anglo-French consumption, but the rest… Anyway, now I want to know how English-speakers familiar with her say “Lopokova,” since she’s not in any of my biographical reference works and Wikipedia doesn’t give a pronunciation. Anybody know?

Thesaurus Linguae Latinae.

I can’t believe I’ve never reported on this massive lexicographical project before, but such appears to be the case. Happily, Byrd Pinkerton has done an NPR piece that gives me a chance to remedy the omission:

On the second floor of an old Bavarian palace in Munich, Germany, there’s a library with high ceilings, a distinctly bookish smell and one of the world’s most extensive collections of Latin texts. About 20 researchers from all over the world work in small offices around the room.

They’re laboring on a comprehensive Latin dictionary that’s been in progress since 1894. The most recently published volume contained all the words beginning with the letter P. That was back in 2010.

And they’re not as far along as that may lead you to believe. They skipped over N years ago because it has so many long words, and now they’ve had to go back to that one. They’re also working on R at the same time. That should take care of the rest of this decade.

The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae was one of many big, scholarly projects taken on by the German government in the late 19th century.

Through two World Wars and German reunification, generations of Latin scholars have been chipping away at the same goal: documenting every use of every Latin word from the earliest Latin inscriptions in the 6th century BC up until around 200 AD, when it was in decline as a spoken language. Befitting the comprehensive nature of the project, the scholars will also include some words up to the 6th century AD.

That means poetry and history and speeches. But it also means every gravestone and street sign. It means architectural works, medical and legal texts, books about animals or cooking.

There’s a lot more about the history and techniques involved, as well as the people who work on it (and some great photos); I’ll just quote this one additional bit to explain a joke:

Her colleague, Nigel Holmes, a Thesaurus editor, wrote the article for nam, or “for.”

“I have sometimes joked that I still have nightmares from when I was in nam,” he admits. “But it was actually, it was easier than I thought.”

For those too young to remember, “Nam” (rhymes with “ham”) used to be a common way to refer to Vietnam (and the war America fought there), and “when I was in Nam” was a phrase you heard a lot.

Sac or Poche?

Or sachet or pochon? Or perhaps cornet or nylon? The French have many words for ‘plastic shopping bag,’ and you can see the geographical distribution at Arika Okrent’s Mental Floss post, along with a link to more such maps. Now I’m wondering what the Québecois say…

Most of the Translators Are in Hell.

Ursula Sims-Williams writes about “When Akbar commissioned a Persian take on the Mahabharata,” and a fascinating read it is, with gorgeous illustrations, but I can’t resist excerpting the same passage from Badāʼūnī’s Muntakhab al-tavārīkh that Trevor quoted in his e-mail when he sent me the link:

Collecting together the learned men of India, His Majesty directed that the book Mahabharat should be translated. For some nights His Majesty personally (had it) explained to Naqib Khan, who wrote out the resultant text in Persian. On the third night His Majesty summoned me and ordered me to translate it in collaboration with Naqib Khan. In three or four months out of the eighteen chapters (fan) of that stock of useless fables… I wrote out two chapters. … Thereafter Mulla Shiri and Naqib Khan completed that section, and one section Sultan Haji Thanesari ʻMunfaridʼ brought to completion.

Shaikh Faizi was then appointed to write it in verse and prose, but he too did not complete more than two Chapters (fan). Again, the said Haji wrote out two sections and rectified the errors which were committed in the first round, and fitting one part with another, compiled a hundred fasciculi. The direction was to establish exactitude in a minute manner so that nothing of the original should be lost. In the end upon some fault, His Majesty ordered him (Haji Thanesari) to be dismissed and sent away to Bhakkar, his native city, where he still is. Most of the interpreters and translators are in hell along with Korus and Pandavs, and as for the remaining ones, may God save them, and mercifully destine them to repent…. His Majesty named the work Razmnaama (Epic), and had it illustrated and transcribed in many copies, and the nobles too were ordered to have it transcribed by way of obtaining blessings. Shaikh Abul Fazl… wrote a preface of the length of two quires (juzv) for that work.

From Chickenman to Eagleton.

I’ve barely begun reading Michael S. Gorham’s 2003 Speaking in Soviet Tongues: Language Culture and the Politics of Voice in Revolutionary Russia (which incorporates his article “Mastering the Perverse: State Building and Language ‘Purification’ in Early Soviet Russia,” discussed in this 2008 post), and I’m already hooked — it’s one of those dense books whose every page provides material to think about. There are all kinds of passages I could quote, but for the moment I’ll limit myself to this (from pages 30-31), on the adoption of new family names (I’ve incorporated the footnotes, bracketed, in the text):

A less well-known study of registered name changes in the early Soviet years brings this point to bear, by showing that, apart from those taking on surnames in the Soviet spirit (Maiskaia, Oktiabr’skii, Leninskii, Mashininskii, Kombainov, Boitsov), hundreds of other citizens took advantage of the spirit of revolution to realize their own, personal transformation, which often had little or nothing to do with supporting or resisting the state. [Surnames listed are derived, in order, from the Russian words for “May,” “October,” “Lenin,” “machine,” “combine,” and “fighter.” …] Some took the opportunity to abandon derogatory “talking” surnames (a relatively common trait in Russian), such as Sobachkin, Korovin, Krysov, Tarakanov, Dikarev, Negodiaev, Durakov, Zhirnyi, Sliun’kov, Pupkov, Pupkin, Kulibaba, Likhobaba, and Sorokobabkin. [Surnames derived, in order, from the Russian words for “dog,” “cow,” “rat,” “cockroach,” “savage,” “scoundrel,” “fool,” “fat,” “saliva,” “navel [pup],” “coolie wench,” “varmint wench,” and “blabbermouth wench.” …] Others simply opted for more prestigious, poetic, or euphonic names — again, having little to do with the new Soviet order per se (Pushkin, Tolstoy, Onegin, Nevskii, Gorskii, Amurskii, Uralov, Anis’ia KhliupinaGalina Borovaia, SamodurovPoliarnyi, KurochkaOrlov). [The first surnames listed are derived from names of Russian writers or fictional characters … and geographical references (Neva, gora [“mountain”], Amur, Urals). In the “before → after” examples, Anis’ia Khliupina rejects a surname evocative of “sloshing” or “slogging” (e.g., through the mud) for one that recalls a pine forest (acquiring a more classical, high-society given name as well), a “self-made fool” becomes “the polar one,” and “Chickenman” becomes “Eagleton.”]

I loved seeing Pupkin in the second list, a name indelibly associated with Robert De Niro’s great role in The King of Comedy,

The Perfect Language to Sell Pigs In.

Michael Hartnett, like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, abandoned English to write in a language that far fewer people read; I learned about him from an e-mail that linked to this five-minute interview in Irish:

The bilingual poet Michael Hartnett died in Dublin on 13 October 1999. Renowned for his poetry in both English and Irish, he staked his claim to the Irish language in 1975, when he announced to the world through his book ‘A Farewell to English’ that he would no longer write in English.

‘Féach’ followed him to his new home in Co. Limerick to find out why he had fled Dublin and abandoned the English language. In this interview with Éamon Ó Muirí, Hartnett says he is a poet, but linguistically, “is bastard mise, leath-Ghall agus leath-Ghael”.

There was also a link to this excerpt from A Farewell to English:

I am nothing new
I am not a lonely mouth
trying to chew
a niche for culture
in the clergy-cluttered south.

But I will not see
great men go down
who walked in rags
from town to town
finding English a necessary sin
the perfect language to sell pigs in.

I have made my choice
and leave with little weeping:
I have come with meagre voice
to court the language of my people.

Thanks, Trevor!