Archives for December 2016

Disowning Your Native Language.

I don’t normally post about things hidden behind paywalls, but Yiyun Li’s “To Speak Is to Blunder” (New Yorker, January 2, 2017) is so good I’m making an exception. It’s one of the best things I’ve read about someone’s personal relationship to language; I’ll provide a few excerpts so you can get the feel of it:

Years ago, when I started writing in English, my husband asked if I understood the implication of the decision. What he meant was not the practical concerns, though there were plenty: the nebulous hope of getting published; the lack of a career path as had been laid out in science, my first field of postgraduate study in America; the harsher immigration regulation I would face as a fiction writer. Many of my college classmates from China, as scientists, acquired their green cards under a National Interest Waiver. An artist is not of much importance to any nation’s interest. […]

Nabokov once answered a question he must have been tired of being asked: “My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom.” That something is called a tragedy, however, means it is no longer personal. One weeps out of private pain, but only when the audience swarms in and claims understanding and empathy do people call it a tragedy. One’s grief belongs to oneself; one’s tragedy, to others.

I often feel a tinge of guilt when I imagine Nabokov’s woe. Like all intimacies, the intimacy between one and one’s mother tongue can be comforting and irreplaceable, yet it can also demand more than what one is willing to give, or more than one is capable of giving. If I allow myself to be honest, my private salvation, which cannot and should not be anybody’s concern, is that I disowned my native language. […]

The tragedy of Nabokov’s loss is that his misfortune was easily explained by public history. His story—of being driven by a revolution into permanent exile—became the possession of other people. My decision to write in English has also been explained as a flight from my country’s history. But unlike Nabokov, who had been a published Russian writer, I never wrote in Chinese. Still, one cannot avoid the fact that a private decision, once seen through a public prism, becomes a metaphor. Once, a poet of Eastern European origin and I—we both have lived in America for years, and we both write in English—were asked to read our work in our native languages at a gala. But I don’t write in Chinese, I explained, and the organizer apologized for her misunderstanding. I offered to read Li Po or Du Fu or any of the ancient poets I had grown up memorizing, but instead it was arranged for me to read poetry by a political prisoner.

I love the deadpan “instead it was arranged” of that last sentence (no, you can’t read the great poetry you love, you must read the politically relevant stuff we want to hear). The whole thing only takes up four pages in the print version, and I personally think it’s worth getting the magazine to read it. And this (one of several quotes from Katherine Mansfield’s journal) makes me want to read Mansfield:

It is astonishing how violently a big branch shakes when a silly little bird has left it. I expect the bird knows it and feels immensely arrogant.

Sesenta y Ocho Voces.

Another great language-preservation initiative, from Mexico, as reported by Andrew S. Vargas for Remezcla:

Sesenta y Ocho Voces, Sesenta y Ocho Corazones (also known as 68 voces), is a new initiative from Mexico’s government Fund for The Culture and Arts (FONCA) that seeks to elevate Mexico’s 68 indigenous languages by preserving their myths, legends, poems, and stories in the form of beautifully animated short films. Their goal is to foment pride amongst speakers of these languages, and respect among those who don’t, under premise that “nadie puede amar lo que no conoce” (no one can love what they don’t know.)

There are currently seven of these short animated films available, covering dialects of the Huasteco, Maya, Mixteco, Náhuatl, Totonaco, Yaqui and Zapoteco languages. Ranging from two to three minutes, each film employs a different designer to give powerful expression the wisdom contained in these indigenous languages. From reflections on life and death, to vividly recounted myths of the ancient times, these films give Mexico’s indigenous languages their due place amongst the great treasures of human civilization. Check them out below (for English translations, look on their Vimeo page.)

An update says they’ve added videos in Mayo, Ch’ol, Tseltal, and Ayapaneco. Thanks, Trevor!


Another word I’ve learned from Mating (see this post) is merchet, in the words of the OED “A fine paid by a tenant or bondsman to his overlord for the right to give his daughter in marriage”; their etymology:

Origin: Probably a borrowing from Welsh; modelled on a French lexical item. Etymons: Welsh merched, merch.
Etymology: Probably < Old Welsh merched, plural of merch daughter, girl, wife (attested from 12th cent.: see marry v.), perhaps via Anglo-Norman merchet or post-classical Latin mercheta, merchetum, marchettum (from 13th cent. in British sources; late 12th cent. as mercheitum). Compare Welsh gobr merch merchet (14th cent.).

I still have the copy of Branwen ferch Llŷr [Branwen, daughter of Llŷr] we studied in my Middle Welsh class over four decades ago (ferch, i.e. /verχ/, is the lenited form of merch). I can’t remember the last time I had to look up so many words and phrases, English and foreign, when reading a novel in English; I trust no one will be under the misapprehension that this is a complaint. It really is a very good novel, and I’m sorry the end is drawing near.

Pecan vs. Pecan.

Steven Petrow writes for the Washington Post about an issue that has occasionally intrigued me over the years, the distribution of the pronunciations “pih-KAHN” and “PEE-can.” I’ve always said the former, but I’m not sure now whether it’s from my father’s (Ozark) side of the family or my mother’s (Iowa) side. Petrow (who got in trouble for saying it that way) carried out some informal research:

My own “investigation” corroborated the pecan pickers’ poll. Jimmy Holcomb, who grew up in eastern North Carolina, defiantly says “PEE-can,” while the Mississippi-born wife of a colleague says “puh-KAHN . . . and if you say PEE-can, watch out.” Kathleen Purvis, author of the 2012 cookbook “Pecans,” wrote in a North Carolina magazine: “Conventional wisdom holds that the difference is regional, one more thing separated by the Mason-Dixon Line. Sorry, but that’s just not so. I’ve listened to people from all over. And in my experience, this pronunciation isn’t North versus South.”

Okay, then what is it? Josh Katz, author of “Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk,” has studied dialects far and wide, including — no surprise — the pronunciation of “pecan.” His book and a corresponding map actually detail four ways to say it, since the emphasis can be on one syllable or the other, though for the life of me I’ve never heard anybody say “pee-CAN.” Katz says the “urban-rural” fault line “is a big part of a lot of dialect variation, in particular pronunciation.” With that distinction in mind, urban dwellers in North Carolina are more likely to say “PEE-can,” while country folk generally say “pih-KAHN” (his take on “puh-KAHN”). Purvis agrees, “It’s urban versus rural.” […]

Exhausted and getting hungry for some pie, I decided it was time to use my “phone-a-friend” lifeline and called William Ferris, one of the country’s greatest folklorists and an expert on all things Southern. (His official title: senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC Chapel Hill.) Ferris grew up on a farm outside Vicksburg, Miss., and shocked me — and no doubt some of my well-schooled friends — when he claimed that how you pronounce pecan is connected to “class and education.”

He doesn’t come to any real conclusion, and I’ll be glad of whatever enlightenment my readers can shed. (Thanks, Eric!)

What Is a True Translation?

Peter Adamson writes at Aeon about the “well-funded translation movement that unfolded during the Abbasid caliphate,” which “sought to import Greek philosophy and science into Islamic culture”:

[…] A well-heeled Muslim who moved in court circles, al-Kindī oversaw the activity of Christian scholars who could render Greek into Arabic. The results were mixed. The circle’s version of Aristotle’s Metaphysics can be almost incomprehensible at times (to be fair, one could say this of the Greek Metaphysics too), while their ‘translation’ of the writings of Plotinus often takes the form of a free paraphrase with new, added material.

It’s a particularly dramatic example of something that is characteristic of the Greek-Arabic translations more generally – and perhaps of all philosophical translations. Those who have themselves translated philosophy from a foreign language will know that, to attempt it, you need a deep understanding of what you are reading. Along the way, you must make difficult choices about how to render the source text into the target language, and the reader (who might not know, or not be able to access, the original version) will be at the mercy of the translator’s decisions.

Here’s my favourite example. Aristotle uses the Greek word eidos to mean both ‘form’ – as in ‘substances are made of form and matter’ – and ‘species’ – as in ‘human is a species that falls under the genus of animal’. But in Arabic, as in English, there are two different words (‘form’ is ṣūra, ‘species’ is nawʿ). As a result, the Arabic translators had to decide, every time they came across the word eidos, which of these concepts Aristotle had in mind – sometimes it was obvious, but sometimes not. The Arabic Plotinus, however, goes far beyond such necessary decisions of terminology. It makes dramatic interventions into the text, which help to bring out the relevance of Plotinus’ teaching for monotheistic theology, repurposing the Neoplatonic idea of a supreme and utterly simple first principle as the mighty Creator of the Abrahamic faiths.

What was the role of al-Kindī himself in all this? We’re not entirely sure, actually. It seems clear that he did no translating himself, and he might not even have known much Greek. But it is recorded that he ‘corrected’ the Arabic Plotinus, which could have extended to adding his own ideas to the text. Evidently, al-Kindī and his collaborators thought that a ‘true’ translation would be one that conveys truth, not just one that has fidelity to the source text.

Very interesting stuff. Thanks, Paul!

Xmas Loot 2016.

An enjoyable but long and tiring day, so just a brief mention of a few items of LH interest:

Matthew P. Romaniello, The Elusive Empire: Kazan and the Creation of Russia, 1552–1671

Michael Emmerich, The Tale of Genji (see this LH post)

Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem (this will be my first Chinese sf novel)

Doctor Zhivago, directed by Aleksandr Proshkin

I wish everyone a merry/happy Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, or just a good late-December day, depending on how you roll. And so to bed!

Update. And jamessal gave me The Adventures of Augie March; he calls it “from what I can tell thus far, the best novel written by the best American English prose stylist.” Thanks, Jim!

Silva Rerum.

Another bit of ostentatious erudition from the narrator of Mating (see this post): she says “Clearly the living quarters were just another part of the silva rerum,” and of course I had to investigate. I knew it was Latin for ‘the forest of things,’ but there had to be an allusion there; it turns out Cicero refers to “Silva rerum et sententiarum” (though I don’t know what exactly that means), and in early modern Poland a silva rerum was “a specific type of a book, a multi-generational chronicle, kept by many Polish and Lithuanian noble families from the 16th through 18th centuries” (to quote Wikipedia, which oddly has no other sense of the phrase and no explanation for why it came to mean that). If anyone knows more about the history of this phrase, please share.

Google’s Interlingua.

Sam Wong writes for New Scientist about an interesting development in the rapidly improving Google Translate:

Traditional machine-translation systems break sentences into words and phrases, and translate each individually. In September, Google Translate unveiled a new system that uses a neural network to work on entire sentences at once, giving it more context to figure out the best translation. This system is now in action for eight of the most common language pairs on which Google Translate works.

Although neural machine-translation systems are fast becoming popular, most only work on a single pair of languages, so different systems are needed to translate between others. With a little tinkering, however, Google has extended its system so that it can handle multiple pairs – and it can translate between two languages when it hasn’t been directly trained to do so.

For example, if the neural network has been taught to translate between English and Japanese, and English and Korean, it can also translate between Japanese and Korean without first going through English. This capability may enable Google to quickly scale the system to translate between a large number of languages.

“This is a big advance,” says Kyunghyun Cho at New York University. His team and another group at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany have independently published similar studies working towards neural translation systems that can handle multiple language combinations.

Google’s researchers think their system achieves this breakthrough by finding a common ground whereby sentences with the same meaning are represented in similar ways regardless of language – which they say is an example of an “interlingua”. In a sense, that means it has created a new common language, albeit one that’s specific to the task of translation and not readable or usable for humans.

Thanks, Kobi! And anyone interested in how GT got as good as it is should read this NY Times Sunday Magazine piece by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, which explains it in the context of the whole “artificial intelligence” phenomenon — long, but well worth it.


Tsvetaeva’s mature style is elliptical to the point that it’s sometimes hard to figure out what she’s talking about. Usually after I marinate in the verses for a while it becomes clear, but sometimes I’m at a loss and try to find a translation to lean on. Unfortunately, she’s poorly served by translation (unlike Akhmatova and Mandelstam, for whom pretty much everything has been Englished), so when I got stuck in her 1921 poem cycle Благая весть (“Good tidings,” with overtones of Благовещение ‘Annunciation’ — the poems are a response to the unexpected news that her beloved husband Sergei Efron was alive) I had to make do with an amateur online translation by someone who does not seem to actually know Russian (compare the Isidor Schneider translation of Gorky’s autobiography, mocked at LH here, here, and here). It was some help in a couple of places, but in general it raised more questions than it solved. What drove me to post was the bizarre line “Foaming lops on a mantle,” attempting to translate “Гривой/ Вспенённые зыби” [‘Like a mane (are the) foaming ripples’]. I thought “lops” might be a typo, but when I turned to my trusty Oxford Russian dictionary I found зыбь defined as “ripple; … (poet.) lop.” Lop?! Utterly flummoxed, I turned to my trusty Oxford English Dictionary and found, at the tail end of a series of nouns lop (“A spider”; “A flea”; “The smaller branches and twigs of trees, such as are not measured for timber; faggot-wood, loppings”; “A lobe (of the liver)”; “The infusion of bark and ooze used in tanning leather”) the following:

lop, n.6

A state of the sea in which the waves are short and lumpy.
1829 P. Hawker Diary (1893) I. 360 There was too much ‘lop’.
1838 P. Hawker Diary (1893) II. 153 The wigeon..were always on a ‘lop of the sea’.
1847 Illustr. London News 10 July 18/2 There being a ‘lop’ on, the boat lurched to windward.
1899 F. T. Bullen Way Navy 38 Quite a ‘lop’ of a sea gets up, but these battleships take no heed of it.

Now, this entry hasn’t been updated since 1903, so I can’t say that the word hasn’t been used in over a century, but I can say that I’ve never run across it, and it enrages me that the lexicographers who compiled the dictionary, fine fellows that they were, felt comfortable giving “lop” as an equivalent of зыбь without further explanation. Have any of you ever run across it in this sense? [An “English boatie” in the comment thread says “I’ve heard of a ‘lop,'” so I withdraw the tentative accusation of obsolete status.]

And while I have your attention, I’ll ask the Russian-speakers among you what you think is meant by the line “Меж дулом и хлябью” [‘Between gun-muzzle and хлябь’] in poem 5 — хлябь can mean either ‘abyss’ (archaically) or ‘mud’ (colloquially), and neither seems obviously correct to me here.

Lasàgn Cald.

This Prospero column from the Economist is about the dialect of Milan, milanes, about which I knew very little. It starts with a passage about old folk songs in dialect and “la mala, the now defunct Milanese underworld,” then continues:

If these songs are a fascinating historical record of a changing city, they are also important linguistically. Svampa and his colleagues sang in Milan’s nasal dialect. Its mixed-up vocabulary is a reminder of how recently Italy was a jumble of independent states with connections to different neighbours. French terms like coeur (heart) and oeuf (egg) are just two examples. Indeed, the prevalence of the French oeu and ch sounds can make Milanese seem more Parisian than Italian. Its peculiar negation, using minga instead of non, also distinguishes Milanese from regular Italian.

Indeed, Milanese can often be a struggle just to understand for someone from Naples or Rome. A typical song, “El ridicol matrimoni”, lists the huge quantities of food eaten by a bride before her wedding night:

Trii padéj de risòtt giald
quatter mastèj de lasàgn cald
ses cavagn fra uga e pêr
e quatter navasc de caffè ner.

Compared to this, almost every word is spelt and pronounced differently in Italian:

Tre padelle di risotto g[i]allo
quattro mastelli di lasagna calda
sei cesti di uva e pere
e quattro fiaschi di caffè nero.

In English, the feast included

Three pans of saffron risotto
four trays of hot lasagna
six baskets of grapes and pears
and four large jugs of black coffee.

Nowadays, terms like navasc are dying out. Only about 2% of Milanese still speak the dialect fluently. Ironically, the upheavals of the “economic miracle”—which provided so much inspiration for Svampa and Jannacci—ultimately doomed their dialect. Now that Milan is a thoroughly multicultural city, with immigrants from all over Italy and beyond, it makes sense to just speak Italian. “There are people born in Milan, but who perhaps don’t feel Milanese because they have parents from Puglia or Campania,” says Edoardo Bossi, a Milanese dialect teacher. This is in contrast to parts of Italy that have attracted fewer outsiders, where dialect is still dominant: Sicilian, for example, is spoken by 4.7m people throughout southern Italy. Moreover, young people are shy to speak milanes. The dialect’s gruff reputation hardly helps. According to Mr Bossi, “when you speak Milanese in public, people look at you as if you’re being rude.”

Fascinating stuff, and I love the sample quatrain. Thanks, Trevor!