Archives for July 2016

The Art of Translating Foreign Fiction.

Rachel Cooke writes (for The Observer) about the importance of the right translation; she begins:

Last year, I decided to treat myself to a new copy of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, a novel I have loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, and whose dreamy opening line in its original translation from the French by Irene Ash – “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness” – I know by heart. But which one to get? In the end, I decided to go for something entirely new and ritzy, which is how I came to buy the Penguin Modern Classics edition, translated by Heather Lloyd.

Some days later, in bed, I began reading it. The shock was tremendous, disorienting. “This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’,” went the first sentence, which sounded to my ears a little as though a robot had written it. For a while I pressed on, telling myself it was stupid to cling to only one version, as if it were a sacred thing, and that perhaps I would soon fall in love with this no doubt very clever and more accurate new translation. Pretty soon, though, I gave up. However syntactically correct it might be, the prose had for me lost all of its magic. It was as if I’d gone out to buy a silk party dress and come home with a set of nylon overalls.

Last week, I mentioned this experience to Ann Goldstein, the acclaimed translator of the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. She laughed. “I know what you mean,” she said, down the line from New York. “My feeling about Proust is that he’s Scott-Moncrieff [C K Scott-Moncrieff, who published his English translation of A La recherche du temps perdu as Remembrance of Things Past in the 1920s]. I haven’t read the newer translations – but I don’t want to. I’m very attached to his, even though people always say ‘he did this’ or ‘he did that’.”

I feel the same way about Scott Moncrieff (n.b. and tsk: no hyphen), and I enjoyed both Cooke’s essay and the reminiscences by translators that follow it: Deborah Smith (translator of the Korean writer Han Kang), Ann Goldstein, Edith Grossman (translator of works by Mario Vargas Llosa, Alvaro Mutis, Cervantes, and Gabriel García Márquez, among others), George Szirtes (translator of Hungarian writers including Imre Madách, Sándor Márai, and László Krasznahorkai), Don Bartlett (translator of Danish and Norwegian authors including Jo Nesbø, Lars Saabye Christensen, Roy Jacobsen, and Karl Ove Knausgaard), and Melanie Mauthner (best known for translating the works of Rwandan novelist Scholastique Mukasonga). I liked them all, but perhaps especially Mauthner, who has this fetching description:

When I was translating Our Lady of the Nile there were many unfamiliar terms I needed to find out about, for example, “un wax africain”. Walking through the alleys of Brixton market, I stepped into a fabric shop, where I discovered what the term means: the process of tie-dyeing cloth with wax, cloth that is then used to fashion women’s dresses and men’s robes. As I was reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fiction at the time, I realised that the best translation would be “wrapper”.

Here is how I translate: I read the whole book first, as well as other books by the author so that I have the sound and feel of their prose in my head. The challenge is to find a similar voice in English. Would Scholastique Mukasonga sound like Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Morrison or Bernardine Evaristo? Walking around Brixton was helpful. It was in Brixton library that I first stumbled on this Rwandan author’s short stories. In south London you can hear so many “Englishes”: African, African Caribbean and Latin American. Mukasonga writes in a classical, lyrical French. Think Chinua Achebe or Nadine Gordimer. I needed to find a warm, tender, lively and smooth neutral English. I knew I would keep all the Kinyarwanda words that describe plants, fabric, food and spiritual rituals.

Thanks, Eric!

Orangutan Learns to Control Vocalizations.

Rachel Premack’s Washington Post story on Rocky, an 11-year-old orangutan who has learned to control the pitch and volume of his vocalizations, is admirably restrained for a newspaper story on language, carefully stating:

Shumaker noted that this shouldn’t be equated with the words and communication of humans. Rocky’s grunts have no deeper meaning — other than that, Shumaker believes, Rocky originally learned these sounds to get human attention.

But what was shown is still fairly significant:

The learning aspect of Rocky’s grunts are another crucial component [of more complex communication]. It’s something he likely learned from humans, rather than an organic sound that all orangutans make. Researchers determined this by comparing his sounds with what they call “the largest database ever assembled of orangutan calls,” which comprises more than 12,000 hours of observing 120 orangutans both wild and captive. Rocky’s sounds were confirmed to have an entirely different frequency range.

“We’ve demonstrated that apes are able to learn a new vocalization that is unknown in their species,” Shumaker said. “We don’t know how he learned it, but he either innovated it on his own or was able to reproduce it, then learn it. There’s no doubt now that apes are able to acquire or learn new vocalization.”

As longtime LH readers will be aware, I have no truck with breathless “Animals can talk!” pieces, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in studies like this. Give ’em a million or so years, and these apes may be writing blogs. (Thanks, Eric!)

Update. See Mark Liberman’s well-informed post at the Log.

Turgenev’s Rudin.

I just finished Turgenev’s first novel, Rudin (1856: Wikipedia, Russian text, Garnett translation), and I’m glad I read it, though I almost gave up on it. For the first two chapters there was absolutely nothing of interest (to me): rote nature descriptions (“It was a quiet summer morning. The sun stood already pretty high in the clear sky but the fields were still sparkling with dew…”), a collection of briefly sketched characters (a young widow, an old woman, a guy in a droshky, a young man with a radiant face and “something Asiatic” in his features, etc.), and a country estate (“a huge stone mansion, built after designs of Rastrelli in the taste of last century”). It was all very much like one of Turgenev’s early plays, and when the wonderfully named Afrikan Semyonovich Pigasov, a loquacious cynic, showed up and everybody started having one of those country-estate-play conversations (“‘So, according to you, African Semenitch,’ continued Darya Mihailovna, turning to Pigasov, ‘all young ladies are affected?'”) I was ready to bail. But at the start of the third chapter Dmitry Rudin enters, and the contraption immediately sputters into life. He quickly wins over the ladies and most of the men, though he offends Pigasov by demolishing his shallow arguments; I’ll quote a passage in extenso (in Garnett’s translation) so you can see his attractiveness:

‘Tell us something of your student life,’ said Alexandra Pavlovna.

Rudin complied. He was not altogether successful in narrative. There was a lack of colour in his descriptions. He did not know how to be humorous. However, from relating his own adventures abroad, Rudin soon passed to general themes, the special value of education and science, universities, and university life generally. He sketched in a large and comprehensive picture in broad and striking lines. All listened to him with profound attention. His eloquence was masterly and attractive, not altogether clear, but even this want of clearness added a special charm to his words.

The exuberance of his thought hindered Rudin from expressing himself definitely and exactly. Images followed upon images; comparisons started up one after another—now startlingly bold, now strikingly true. It was not the complacent effort of the practised speaker, but the very breath of inspiration that was felt in his impatient improvising. He did not seek out his words; they came obediently and spontaneously to his lips, and each word seemed to flow straight from his soul, and was burning with all the fire of conviction. Rudin was the master of almost the greatest secret—the music of eloquence. He knew how in striking one chord of the heart to set all the others vaguely quivering and resounding. Many of his listeners, perhaps, did not understand very precisely what his eloquence was about; but their bosoms heaved, it seemed as though veils were lifted before their eyes, something radiant, glorious, seemed shimmering in the distance.

All Rudin’s thoughts seemed centred on the future; this lent him something of the impetuous dash of youth… Standing at the window, not looking at any one in special, he spoke, and inspired by the general sympathy and attention, the presence of young women, the beauty of the night, carried along by the tide of his own emotions, he rose to the height of eloquence, of poetry…. The very sound of his voice, intense and soft, increased the fascination; it seemed as though some higher power were speaking through his lips, startling even to himself…. Rudin spoke of what lends eternal significance to the fleeting life of man.

‘I remember a Scandinavian legend,’ thus he concluded, ‘a king is sitting with his warriors round the fire in a long dark barn. It was night and winter. Suddenly a little bird flew in at the open door and flew out again at the other. The king spoke and said that this bird is like man in the world; it flew in from darkness and out again into darkness, and was not long in the warmth and light…. “King,” replies the oldest of the warriors, “even in the dark the bird is not lost, but finds her nest.” Even so our life is short and worthless; but all that is great is accomplished through men. The consciousness of being the instrument of these higher powers ought to outweigh all other joys for man; even in death he finds his life, his nest.’

Rudin stopped and dropped his eyes with a smile of involuntary embarrassment.

Turgenev said the character was based on the anarchist Bakunin; Herzen, who knew both men well, thought it was more a reflection of Turgenev himself. Be that as it may, Rudin is real and compelling in a way that none of the other characters are, barring perhaps Mikhailo Lezhnev, a college friend of Rudin’s who had become estranged from him but in the course of the novel comes to appreciate him anew. The plot is trivial and could be lifted from pretty much any random play or story of the time: Rudin enchants Darya Mikhailovna’s teenage daughter Natalya and thinks he’s in love with her, but when push comes to shove he can’t do anything about it. Discussion of the novel tends to rely heavily on the whole “superfluous man” thing, which to me is meaningless — it was a meme of the 1850s that has long since passed its sell-by date. Rudin isn’t superfluous, he’s just an intelligent fellow who can’t find a practical use for his intelligence, a phenomenon not unknown in our own day. I get the feeling that Turgenev wanted badly to bring this vivid character to life, perhaps tried making him the focus of a play but decided it should be a novel, except that he didn’t yet know how to write a novel. Never mind, it’s short and well worth reading, even if Fathers and Sons is still a long way off.

A Maatschappij of Mates.

I knew the Dutch word maatschappij ‘society, company’ from a former life as a member of the editorial staff of an accounting firm, and I would have guessed that the maat part was a cognate of English mate, but the details, as presented by this entry from N. van der Sijs’s Klein uitleenwoordenboek [Little loan-word dictionary], are quite interesting (thanks for the link go to the estimable Conrad); I present Google Translate’s version, with a few obvious problems cleaned up by me, but I do not know Dutch and will welcome any corrections:

maatschappij. The origin of the word maatschappij for ‘association for carrying on trade’ is closely linked to the founding of the Dutch East India Company [Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie] in 1602. The VOC was a company whose capital was provided by a group of wealthy merchants. They also spoke of the Oostindische Maatschappij or maetschappy. The word maatschappij is a derivation of maatschap [‘partnership’], formed in the fourteenth century from maat ‘buddy, companion, helper’ and the suffix –schap for collective names; a maatschap is thus a union of two or more persons.

Because the VOC in the seventeenth century was a leading international trading company, the Dutch word maatschappij was adopted by other languages. It was borrowed into Middle Low German in the form matschoppie, in German they spoke of Maskopei – now it is obsolete and replaced by Gesellschaft.

In Danish and Norwegian the word was borrowed as maskepi, and in Swedish as maskopi. In addition, Danish also borrowed unchanged the Dutch maatschappij, at least according to a Danish dictionary of foreign words. The Danish and Norwegian maskepi and Swedish maskopi have had a pretty significant development, namely they mean ‘covert relations, intrigue.’ This may result from the influence of the Norwegian verb maskere (Swedish maskera) ‘to mask,’ but it is more likely that the shift in meaning occurred because the Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes had little confidence in the traders who had united in the Dutch trading company, which after all was stiff competition for their own trading.

In Polish, maatschappij was borrowed as maszoperia ‘trading company.’ One informant stated that this word appears in Kashubia, an area on the Baltic Sea near Gdańsk, where it is used for a cooperative organization of small fishermen.

In Indonesian the Dutch word was borrowed as maskapai ‘trading,’ in Javanese as maskapé, maskepé, and in Sranantongo as maskapei.

From the examples it appears that some languages ​​have borrowed Dutch maatschappij with the second syllable in –o– in place of the Dutch –a-. The Middle Low German form was pronounced [?] matschoppie. This –o– may restore the former Dutch pronunciation: in that period a was regularly pronounced /ao/ or /oa/; for example, think of the current dialect pronunciation /woater/. The German and Swedish words can also be borrowed from Middle Low German.

The OED etymology for mate ‘associate’ (updated March 2001) reads as follows:

< Middle Low German māt comrade (German regional (Low German) Maat), by aphesis < a Middle Low German cognate of Old High German gimazzo messmate (Middle High German gemazze) < the Germanic base of y– prefix + the Germanic base of meat n. Compare early modern Dutch maat (1546), maet (1573) friend, partner (Dutch maat), and also Middle Dutch maet– (in maetscap company, partnership), probably also a borrowing < Middle Low German (compare Middle Low German mātschop).

Wooder, Wooder Everywhere: That Philly Accent.

“Mo Rocca takes a look at the unique sounds of Philadelphia” in this five-minute video clip for CBS. Bonus: he talks with an actual linguist, Meredith Tamminga; I’m pleased to say that I guessed correctly that, as her website puts it, “Tamminga is a Frisian surname.” (Via the Log.)

Tom Wolfe vs. Chomsky.

I will stipulate up front that Tom Wolfe’s mannerisms can be annoying (especially if you read more than one of his books) and that no matter how much research he’s done, his view of linguistics is inevitably an outsider’s and will contain errors. Still, I was delighted to read Victor Mair’s Log post about Wolfe’s cover article in the August Harper’s, “The Origins of Speech: In the beginning was Chomsky.” The title caused me to fear the worst, but it turns out he (rightly, in my view) sees Chomsky’s revolution as a Bad Thing; here are a couple of snippets Mair quotes:

Only wearily could Chomsky endure traditional linguists who thought fieldwork was essential and wound up in primitive places, emerging from the tall grass zipping their pants up. They were like the ordinary flycatchers in Darwin’s day coming back from the middle of nowhere with their sacks full of little facts and buzzing about with their beloved multi-language fluency. But what difference did it make, knowing all those native tongues? Chomsky made it clear he was elevating linguistics to the altitude of Plato’s transcendent eternal universals. They, not sacks of scattered facts, were the ultimate reality, the only true objects of knowledge. Besides, he didn’t enjoy the outdoors, where “the field” was. He was relocating the field to Olympus. Not only that, he was giving linguists permission to stay air-conditioned. They wouldn’t have to leave the building at all, ever again … no more trekking off to interview boneheads in stench-humid huts. And here on Olympus, you had plumbing.

… …

In August of 2014, Chomsky teamed up with three colleagues, Johan J. Bolhuis, Robert C. Berwick, and Ian Tattersall, to publish an article for the journal PLoS Biology with the title “How Could Language Have Evolved?” After an invocation of the Strong Minimalist Thesis and the Hierarchical Syntactic Structure, Chomsky and his new trio declare, “It is uncontroversial that language has evolved, just like any other trait of living organisms.” Nothing else in the article is anywhere nearly so set in concrete. Chomsky et alii note it was commonly assumed that language was created primarily for communication … but … in fact communication is an all but irrelevant, by-the-way use of language … language is deeper than that; it is a “particular computational cognitive system, implemented neurally” … there is the proposition that Neanderthals could speak … but … there is no proof … we know anatomically that the Neanderthals’ hyoid bone in the throat, essential for Homo sapiens‘s speech, was in the right place … but …”hyoid morphology, like most other lines of evidence, is evidently no silver bullet for determining when human language originated” … Chomsky and the trio go over aspect after aspect of language … but … there is something wrong with every hypothesis … they try to be all-encompassing … but … in the end any attentive soul reading it realizes that all 5,000 words were summed up in the very first eleven words of the piece, which read: “The evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma.”

The article is a teaser for Wolfe’s forthcoming book, The Kingdom of Speech, which I hope sells like hotcakes. The Log comment thread has the inevitable quota of indignant responses from Chomskyists as well as one from Dan Everett, who says “I think that the main takeaway from Wolfe’s article and perhaps the book is that this is the opinion of someone who has looked carefully at the field for years. Some mistakes are likely his fault. Others are the fault of the field for having been unsuccessful in making itself understandable to the public.”

A Better Turing Test

Dave Wilton posts at

In 1950, computer pioneer Alan Turing formulated his famous test for determining whether or not a computer was true artificial intelligence (AI). It involved discourse between humans and a computer, and if the humans could not tell whether they were speaking to a another person or to a machine, then the machine was “intelligent.” A neat idea, but when put in to practice it’s been found to be too easy to fake.

Over the years various improvements to the Turing test have been suggested, and one recent AI challenge used a rather nifty linguistic approach, outlined by this article in the Neurologica blog [by Steven Novella]. At its core, the test, known as the Winograd schema, asks the AI to determine the referent of an pronoun in a sentence. The pronoun would be ambiguous except for one word that provides the necessary context. For example:

The trophy would not fit in the brown suitcase because it was too big.

What does it refer to, the trophy or the suitcase?

In the sentence, big can be replaced with small, which alters the context and the identity of the referent. Humans have no difficulty getting the correct answer (it refers to the trophy when the adjective is big and the suitcase when the adjective is small), but in the challenge the AI performed dismally, with only the best scores equal to chance guessing.

While I suspect that there are probably as many issues with the Winograd schema as there are with the original Turing test, it’s a neat use of language to test reasoning ability.

Neat indeed!

Thow Meseld Faced Hore.

Jonathan Healey’s recent post at The Social Historian (“Adventures in the world of social, economic, and local history”) is well worth reading for its analysis of sixteenth-century thought (“All this, of course, speaks to one of the biggest fears of the age: the fear of disorder”), but the title will give an idea of why I was drawn to it and am posting it here: “‘The Foulest Place of Mine Arse is Fairer than thy Face.’” It opens with a scene (quoted in lurid detail in court records) of a set-to between Mistress Foster and Agnes Haycroft on Michaelmas Eve in 1544, full of delightfully vile insults:

Frideswide was incensed. ‘That brazenfaced hore’, she said. ‘That meseld faced and skaled hore Haycroft wiff, she will never be contended till she be dreven owt of towne with basons as hir mother was’.

‘Mother,’ she said, ‘if I had bene there I wold have knoked hir furryd cap & her hed together’.

By this time, Agnes Haycroft was back, and she challenged Frideswide. ‘Wold you have don it’, she scoffed, ‘yow pockye nosed howswife’.

To this, Frideswide exploded: ‘Agnes Haycroft nay thou pokey nosed hore, feiste thow, thow meseld faced hore, thow camest to towne with a lepers face & a skalled hed, And I defye the[e] utterly, for I wold thow knewist yt that the fowlest place of myn arse ys fayrer then thy face’.

Or, as another witness had it: ‘avaunte thou pockye hore and mesellfaced hore, the fowlest place of my arse is fayrer then thy face’.

It’s worth it just for the name Frideswide, but there’s so much more! (Via MetaFilter.)

New Phonetic Character.

As an inveterate lover of all things bereft of past, future, and use, I was thrilled to discover the “New Phonetic Character for writing Shanghai dialect” invented by Protestant missionaries in the 1850s; a few books were published in it, heroically catalogued by David Helliwell in this 2012 Serica post, and it was then consigned to the dustbin of history, so utterly forgotten that an inscription in it was posted at douban and no one could identify it. I learned about it from Victor Mair’s Log post, where in the first comment Jichang Lulu identifies the writing shown; I also highly recommend P’i-kou’s comment on the Helliwell post, going into fascinating detail about what the phonetic representation tells us about the history of Shanghainese.

Marrin Gamu.

Another promising initiative to help preserve languages, One Children’s Song, Translated Into Australia’s Many Local Languages:

Languages and cultures may differ, but the joyful sound of children singing is universal. A song called “Marrin Gamu,” created for primary school children and teachers to promote the diversity and beauty of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, is proving just that.

The title of the song combines the word for “body” in two of the languages. Marrin is the word for “body” in the Wiradjuri language of New South Wales, and Gamu is the word for “body” in the Kalaw Kawaw Ya language from the Torres Strait.

The song is also the basis of a friendly contest organized by First Languages Australia and ABC Splash. […]

The project will run for the next two years so that all schools have time to develop the necessary relationships to participate in the project. Contest organizers hope to see “Marrin Gamu” sung in many of Australia’s hundreds of first languages.

“Marrin Gamu” fits into a broader strategy to prevent language loss by focusing on schools and students and working with local teachers. Many teachers do not have deep knowledge of these languages, so the website shares cross-curricular programs for use in the classroom. Incorporating an element of digital media and the internet may motivate students when they see their creativity and local language reflected online.

The first submission is a video created by a school in Queensland in which students sing “Marrin Gamu” in the Guarang language. As more videos of the song are submitted, we’ll be sharing them here.

Thanks, Trevor!