Archives for November 2016

Roa Lynn and Patrick Morgan.

Forrest Gander has a wonderful account at Literary Hub of translating Neruda, starting by describing his reluctance to take on the task: “It’s not that I don’t love Neruda, but given the attention he’s justly received […] I’ve wanted to champion terrific lesser-known and more contemporary Latin American writers in translation.” I’ll leave you to discover most of the details at the link (a sample: “There’s an ode to Neruda’s wife’s ear that depends upon a conceit that most Chileans today wouldn’t fathom, since few remember the 1940s vernacular for abalone: ‘little ears of the sea'”) and just quote the anecdote he himself ends with:

But it might be fun to consider a single poem, the oddest in the collection, the one that gave the Spanish-language editors fits. A typed version of this poem, dated June 1968, was found in a filing cabinet with some conference papers. Subsequently, a handwritten version turned up.

It begins: “Roa Lynn and Patrick Morgan / were moored in these waters.” In the next lines, Lynn and Morgan sail off “to sea or to hell” while the dark river bearing “grief and blubbering” and all the particulars of our tumultuous world rushes toward us carrying—what else is it carrying? Something remarkable, we gather from the last lines. For the editors of the Spanish edition, this is an apocalyptical poem and the names Roa Lynn and Patrick Morgan refer to two of the ships’ figureheads that Neruda collected and fondly nicknamed Jenny Lind and Captain Morgan. How Jenny Lind became Roa Lynn and why the famous pirate Captain (Henry) Morgan changed his name to Patrick remain unexplained. But to make matters a little less clear, the editors add a series of curious etymological details, starting with the information that “roa,” in some language, may be a nautical term for the prow of a ship.

Two marvelous interventions solve the riddle of the poem for us. First, a Mexican journalist and reviewer of the Spanish edition of these lost poems bothered to google the perplexing names Roa Lynn and Patrick Morgan. He discovered both names in a May 1968 Argentine weekly. Here’s my translation of the full newspaper notice:

POETS. Unintentionally but notably, the Buenos Aires Herald recently acted as matchmaker: an interview published two weeks ago has culminated in a marriage. When Patrick Morgan read, on April 13th, the tale told by North American poet Roa Lynn Lanou, who spoke of herself, her country, and the Brazilian favela where she lived for a while, Morgan asked his secretary to find her phone number. “I’m going to marry that girl, I said to my secretary,” Morgan, sales manager for Brassovora and an occasional versifier, remembers saying. “My secretary answered I must be crazy.” But that wasn’t the case, clearly. On March 16th, Patrick and Roa met each other in the Golf Club in Palermo; after lunch, they read her poems and “spent the afternoon reciting Shakespeare.” On Friday the 19th, the day Roa was supposed to leave for Chile, the lovers took off to Montevideo, where they were married. On Monday the 22nd, Roa moved into her new residence, a house in the North Barrio of the capital. On Tuesday, she rushed a cable of 30 words to her parents in Ohio, telling them the news.

Isn’t that a gas? What makes it especially piquant for me is that I was living in Buenos Aires then, and we subscribed to the Herald (as did pretty much all the English-speakers in town), and I may very well have read that interview at the time. Thanks, Trevor!


I have little interest in demonology, but when I happened on Esther Inglis-Arkell’s webpage The Five Best and Five Worst Demons to Get Possessed By, I knew I had to post about #3 on the Worst Demons list:

Agares can be a woman or a man. If the demon is a man, the man is old and riding a crocodile. If the demon is a woman, she’s young and angelically beautiful […]. The good news is a short time with Agares will give you knowledge of every language in the world. The bad news is that he or she will only teach you the foulest and most offensive words.

Now, that’s my kind of demon!

Italy’s Last Bastion of Catalan.

Raphael Minder has a nice NY Times piece on Catalan in Alghero:

The first Catalans reached Sardinia in the 14th century, when troops sailed from the eastern coast of what is now Spain as part of an expansion into the Mediterranean.

After an uprising slaughtered the forces garrisoned in this northern port on the island, King Peter IV expelled many of the locals. In their place, he populated Alghero mostly with convicts, prostitutes and other undesirables, many of them Catalans.

Today, Alghero is a linguistic anomaly. This walled and picturesque city is, quite literally, the last bastion of Catalan in Italy. […]

But while the traditional insularity of Alghero has helped to preserve Catalan, the language is struggling to survive even here.

Only about one-quarter of the 43,000 inhabitants of Alghero speak Catalan as a main language, according to local officials. It is hardly spoken among younger people and barely taught in schools. Nearly a century ago, almost everyone spoke Catalan, according to a census conducted in 1921. […]

After Sardinia was taken over by the Turin-based House of Savoy in 1720, eventually becoming part of what is modern-day Italy, the Catalan language virtually disappeared on the island.

Now, Catalan is not only overshadowed by Italian, but it must also compete for recognition with a handful of other languages and dialects, including the dominant indigenous language, Sardinian.

Catalan is rarely heard on the streets in Alghero, though many signs are written in the language. Restaurants also label some of their dishes as Catalan, including a local version of paella.

There’s more at the link, including a useful map and some photos. Needless to say, I regret the approaching disappearance of Algherese (as the locals call it), but I can’t see much hope for staving it off. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Translating Sade’s Obscenities.

Will McMorran’s piece on translating the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom for Penguin might have been written with LH in mind. He calls it “a uniquely disturbing work”:

And therefore uniquely challenging to translate. Perhaps this was the reason no one had attempted a new translation since the one first published by Austryn Wainhouse in 1954 (and revised with Richard Seaver in 1966). In any case, Thomas Wynn and I felt a new version was long overdue, and, much to our surprise, Penguin Classics agreed.

Dealing with the violence was not the only challenge we faced: The 120 Days is also Sade’s most obscene work of fiction. Over the course of three years, this indeed was the issue that prompted the most discussion and debate between us. How exactly were we to translate the various rude words of the original French? Was a vit a prick, dick or a cock? Were tétons boobs, tits or breasts? Was a derrière a behind, a backside or, indeed, a derrière? Was a cul a bum or an arse? While Wainhouse adopted an eccentric idiom that could be best described as mock-Tudor, we decided to try as far as possible to use sexual slang that was still in use today – as long as it did not sound gratingly contemporary.

Translating obscenity into your own language takes some getting used to. […] Rude words in other languages never have quite the same force, so translating them into one’s own language brings the obscenity home in more ways than one.

English reserve probably plays a part in the process, too. When we started translating 120 Days I soon realised I was instinctively toning the original down, avoiding words that I found jarringly ugly. I may not have overcome that entirely (no dicks or cocks for me, thank you very much!) but I realised pretty quickly that a watered-down version of Sade’s novel would be the worst possible outcome. The last thing we wanted to produce was a text that was any less shocking – and therefore potentially appealing – than the original. We had a duty to be just as rude, crude, and revolting as Sade.

To ensure consistency we compiled our own Sadean lexicon as we were translating. Once we had debated the various possible translations of a particular word we would try to settle on one and stick to it. Usually. So a vit would always be a prick, and a cul would always be an arse.

Click through to read about the exceptions; their choices seem sensible to me, though I completely fail to understand why “no dicks or cocks” when you’re trying to be rude, crude, and revolting. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Voicing Surprise.

I was listening to NPR news this morning, as is my wont (a word, incidentally, that I pronounce identically to the contraction won’t, one of three or four versions current in the US), when a newscaster made me exclaim in astonishment: she pronounced the plural deaths with a voiced -th-, as /dɛðz/. Wikipedia explains the phenomenon involved, a historical process of voicing stem-final fricatives:

The voicing alternation found in plural formation is losing ground in the modern language, and of the alternations listed below many speakers retain only the [f-v] pattern, which is supported by the orthography. This voicing is a relic of Old English, the unvoiced consonants between voiced vowels were ‘colored’ with voicing. As the language became more analytic and less inflectional, final vowels/syllables stopped being pronounced. For example, modern knives is a one syllable word instead of a two syllable word, with the vowel ‘e’ not being pronounced. However, the voicing alternation between [f] and [v] still occurs.

As examples of optional voicing with -th- (which is, of course, not indicated by English spelling), they give ba[θ] – ba[ð]s, mou[θ] – mou[ð]s, oa[θ] – oa[ð]s, pa[θ] – pa[ð]s, and you[θ] – you[ð]s. But I’m pretty sure I’ve never before heard it with death.

Totally unrelated, but I want to get it on record: I occasionally mutter to myself a couplet from the deep recesses of my memory, “Keats had TB, Shelley drowned, Shakespeare lies in the cold, cold ground.” I vaguely assumed it was well known, part of everyone’s cultural detritus, but when I googled it to find out its origin, I discovered it’s from a forgotten science fiction story by a forgotten author, Winona McClintic’s “In the Days of Our Fathers.” It was first published in the inaugural (Fall 1949) issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, back when it was still called The Magazine of Fantasy, and apparently has only been reprinted once, in The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction (1952), so I may be one of the few people on earth who keep it ready to the mind’s hand. Since I think it’s striking (and a useful memory aid), I’m putting it here so it can infect more people. And one of these days I’ll have to do a thorough search of the cellar and find the box containing the first issues of F&SF, always my favorite sf magazine; I haven’t seen it since we moved into this house almost a decade ago, and I’d like to wallow in nostalgia for a while.

The Perils of Machine Translation.

Arthur Goldhammer, “a writer, translator, scholar and blogger on French politics” who “has translated more than 120 books from the French,” writes about translation for Aeon. He begins with an anecdote about “a voluble young Dutchman” who asks a couple of nuns where they’re from; “Alas, Framingham, Massachusetts was not on his itinerary, but, he noted, he had ‘shitloads of time and would be visiting shitloads of other places’.”

The jovial young Dutchman had apparently gathered that ‘shitloads’ was a colourful synonym for the bland ‘lots’. He had mastered the syntax of English and a rather extensive vocabulary but lacked experience of the appropriateness of words to social contexts.

This memory sprang to mind with the recent news that the Google Translate engine would move from a phrase-based system to a neural network.

Go to the link for his thoughts about Google Translate and pattern matching; I want to quote this passage:

Google’s translation engine is ‘trained’ on corpora ranging from news sources to Wikipedia. The bare description of each corpus is the only indication of the context from which it arises. From such scanty information it would be difficult to infer the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a word such as ‘shitloads’. If translating into French, the machine might predict a good match to beaucoup or plusieurs. This would render the meaning of the utterance but not the comedy, which depends on the socially marked ‘shitloads’ in contrast to the neutral plusieurs. No matter how sophisticated the algorithm, it must rely on the information provided, and clues as to context, in particular social context, are devilishly hard to convey in code.

Take the French petite phrase. Phrase can mean ‘sentence’ or ‘phrase’ in English. When Marcel Proust uses it in a musical context in his novel À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27), in the line ‘la petite phrase de Vinteuil’, it has to be ‘phrase’, because ‘sentence’ makes no sense. Google Translate (the old phrase-based system; the new neutral network is as yet available only for Mandarin Chinese) does remarkably well with this. If you put in petite phrase alone, it gives ‘short sentence’. If you put in la petite phrase de Vinteuil (Vinteuil being the name of a character who happens to be a composer), it gives ‘Vinteuil’s little phrase’, echoing published Proust translations. The rarity of the name ‘Vinteuil’ provides the necessary context, which the statistical algorithm picks up. But if you put in la petite phrase de Sarkozy, it spits out ‘little phrase Sarkozy’ instead of the correct ‘Sarkozy’s zinger’ – because in the political context indicated by the name of the former president, une petite phrase is a barbed remark aimed at a political rival – a zinger rather than a musical phrase. But the name Sarkozy appears in such a variety of sentences that the statistical engine fails to register it properly – and then compounds the error with an unfortunate solecism.

Also, as I wrote to Paul, who sent me the link: “125 books!! When did he have time to eat? I presume he never slept.” (Past tense because he’s apparently given up translation and now writes code instead.)

The Evolution of Spanish.

Tom Winterbottom reports that “Using digital tools and literature to explore the evolution of the Spanish language, Stanford researcher Cuauhtémoc García-García reveals a new historical perspective on linguistic changes in Latin America and Spain”:

“I wanted to study language evolution through data found in written work to add historical depth to how, where and when languages changed,” he said. “My new data show that Spanish on the Iberian Peninsula was much more resistant to change over time when compared to Spanish in the Americas, where – since colonization – Spanish from Spain has come into contact with local, indigenous and hybrid influences.” […]

Drawing on his past work on changes in Brazilian Portuguese, García-García also noted intriguing differences between the two languages.

“In Brazil, there was a sudden shift in written language that coincided with the country gaining independence from Portugal in 1822 and correlating with increased local autonomy in printing and education,” said García-García, who is a member of the Digital Humanities Focal Group.

In Spanish America, however, rapid transformation of this sort was less common, as the colonies typically had more liberties regarding printing presses and educational institutions. Unlike Portugal, Spain introduced the printing press and universities to its colonies in the Americas in the 16th century, meaning that Spanish was open to local influences and piecemeal evolution over a more gradual period.

In his study, García-García examined the changing use of pronouns in written works. One example aimed to quantify the frequency of the Spanish pronoun vos as compared with , both pronouns meaning “you.”

Their usage varies across time and space. In Argentina, for example, vos is used almost exclusively as the second-person singular pronoun (“you”), as it is in Uruguay, Paraguay, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and to a lesser extent in other Spanish-speaking countries.

García-García found a different story in Chile. Vos was common until the mid-19th century, when it ceded ground to after a campaign led by the Venezuelan intellectual and educator Andrés Bello, who sought to eradicate it from the educational system in his adopted home.

There’s more on Bello’s campaign at the link; I was familiar with vos in Argentina (where I used to live) and Uruguay, but didn’t realize it was so common elsewhere. Thanks, Trevor!

Louis Wolfson’s Languages.

Dr Tony Shaw provides a fascinating psycho-linguistic tidbit in this post from 2012:

Louis Wolfson’s second book, the highly alliterative Ma mère, musicienne, est morte de maladie maligne à minuit, mardi à mercredi, au milieu du mois de mai mille977 au mouroir Memorial à Manhattan, which concerns his mother’s death from ovarian cancer, has just been re-published in France after its first publication in 1984, and was re-edited by the author in 2010 with a very slightly different title.

Wolfson was born in New York in 1931 and has written two books, both in French, which is not his maternal language: a schizophrenic, after horrific youthful spells in psychiatric hospitals which included EST (ECT in British English), he came to detest English to such an extent that his existential survival depended on avoiding the language at all costs. Teaching himself Hebrew, German and Russian, but particularly French, he tried all possible means to shut out English words, notably those of his domineering mother, and for years strove to create an internal language that automatically bypassed received English words to create alternative foreign forms. ‘Where’, to give a straightforward example, is changed to the German ‘woher‘, but other transformations involve highly elaborate linguistic convolutions via similar meanings and phonemes held in common, etc, sometimes through a series of different languages.

Has anybody read either of Wolfson’s books? (Thanks go to Trevor for the link.)

Interview with Michael Emmerich.

This comment by Bathrobe (on the recent Hexabook post) linked to an interview so interesting I had to give it its own post: Hope Leman’s Interview with Michael Emmerich, Author of “The Tale of Genji.” I won’t quote the lengthy description of A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji (Nise Murasaki inaka Genji), because Bathrobe did so in that comment, which I urge everyone to read. Instead I’ll select some earlier bits and encourage you to click through to the whole interview:

You write, “Genji is literature that can only ever be read again.” What do you mean by that?

Certain works of literature are so famous and have been discussed so much, and cited so often in popular culture, that it is almost impossible to approach them without being quite strongly guided by certain expectations about what the work is like, or about how much it matters, or more to the point how much it has mattered.

To some extent, of course, we always have certain expectations about the books we read: knowing that a work belongs to a particular genre, for instance, changes the way in which we read it. I remember reading a book by Donald Barthelme for a class as an undergraduate, and being stunned to learn that one of the students in my discussion section had ended up with a sort of freak copy – halfway through, the novel’s pages had gotten mixed up with the pages of a cowboy novel. Presumably there had been some kind of accident at the bindery. The thing that really impressed me, though, was that the woman who had this copy didn’t even realize there was anything wrong with it – she just assumed the sudden switch was more of Barthelme’s postmodern weirdness. […]

This is a fascinating passage, “The global community of Genji’s readership, and of its non-readership, is ultimately linked – translingually, transnationally, transhistorically – by something its members do not hold in common: Genji.” Could you elaborate? What do you mean, for instance, by “non-readership?”

This goes along with the notion that particularly famous books, books that occupy a preeminent place in a particular literary canon, can only ever be read again. Even people who have never read Hamlet, for instance, may well be familiar with certain phrases from the script or images from film versions. These people, non-readers of Hamlet, nonetheless participate in what has conventionally been called the play’s “reception.” Hamlet can be thought of, then, as a sort of node that connects people all around the globe who have very different takes on or images of the play or its characters, and are even reading or watching it (if they are reading or watching it) in translations into different languages. In 1875, the popular Japanese writer Kanagaki Robun began serializing a version called “Western Kabuki Hamlet” (Seiyō kabuki hamuretto). Very few people in the U.S. have any idea that this soon-aborted translation ever existed, but as one version of Hamlet, it can still be thought of as contributing to the creation of a sort of community centered on the play. Its readers knew Hamlet, readers today know Hamlet. But the Hamlets these two groups knew or know are not the same. The community of Hamlet’s readers is linked by something they do not share.

And I heartily agree with him that “it’s much less interesting and instructive to talk in abstract terms about this issue than it is to actually dig into the specific history of the replacement of a particular work”:

My instincts tell me that the sort of story I tell about The Tale of Genji in my book isn’t at all uncommon – indeed, David Damrosch has noted a wonderful irony in his book What Is World Literature: Johann Peter Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe, which recounts Goethe’s coinage of the term Weltliteratur (world literature) in 1827, is itself “an interesting example of a work that only achieves an effective presence in its country of origin after it has already entered world literature; in a movement that would hardly have surprised Goethe, the book’s reception abroad set the stage for its subsequent revival at home” (32).

Emmerich’s book The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature sounds so interesting (and gorgeously produced, with many illustrations from Nise Murasaki inaka Genji) that I’ve added it to my Amazon wishlist. (M. A. Orthofer has a pretty detailed discussion of it at The Complete Review, which points out that in Japan itself “the Genji monogatari-as-we(and especially the Japanese)-now-know-it really only finally crystallized in Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s translation into modern Japanese — Tanizaki being one of the two writers Akutagawa cited [in 1927] as having actually read the book.”)

Language Learning via Robot.

Brett Henebery reports for The Educator (Australia) about a remarkable innovation:

NAO robots, developed by Aldebaran Robotics, a French robotics company, have been used for research and education purposes in schools and universities worldwide. […] One of these robots, called ‘Pink’, is part of a collaborative research project between the University of Queensland, the Queensland University of Technology, Swinburne University in Melbourne and the Association of Independent Schools of South Australia (AISSA).

The students and teachers at Maitland Lutheran School have been using Pink to embed the language of the traditional owners of the land – the Narungga people, into the school’s new Digital Technologies subject. About 23% of the school’s students are Aboriginal.

AISSA educational consultant, Monica Williams, told The Educator that the project is exploring how a ‘sleeping’ language of one of the peoples of the oldest living culture in the world can be bolstered using innovative technology.

“At the moment, there is only one fluent speaker of the language in the world – Tania Wanganeen. She learnt Narungga based on records that were left by the German missionaries who worked in that area. Now, students are programming the robots to speak the language,” she explained.

“So what we wanted to do at Maitland Lutheran School was to embed the Australian Curriculum cross-curricular priority of Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander history and cultures and give a greater sense of pride to the Aboriginal students about their Aboriginal identity.”

Very cool, and when I was a kid I certainly would have enjoyed such a classroom aid. (Thanks, Trevor!)