Archives for November 2017

Greetings to the Universe.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Caltech presents Greetings to the Universe in 55 Different Languages:

A golden phonograph record was attached to each of the Voyager spacecraft that were launched almost 25 years ago. One of the purposes was to send a message to extraterrestrials who might find the spacecraft as the spacecraft journeyed through interstellar space. In addition to pictures and music and sounds from earth, greetings in 55 languages were included.

NASA asked Dr Carl Sagan of Cornell University to assemble a greeting and gave him the freedom to choose the format and what would be included. Because of the launch schedule, Sagan (and those he got to help him) was not given a lot of time. Linda Salzman Sagan was given the task of assembling the greetings.

The story behind the creation of the “interstellar message” is chronicled in the book, “Murmurs of Earth”, by Carl Sagan, et al. Unfortunately, not much information is given about the individual speakers. Many of the speakers were from Cornell University and the surrounding communities. They were given no instructions on what to say other than that it was to be a greeting to possible extraterrestrials and that it must be brief.

There are excerpts from the book, and, most importantly, a selection of audio clips of the greetings, from Akkadian (“May all be very well”) to Wu (“Best wishes to you all”). I hope the study of Earth languages will distract our new insect overlords from their plans to enslave us.

Egypt in Italy.

I’m reading Peter Thonemann’s TLS review of what sounds like a delightful (if ridiculously expensive) book, Molly Swetnam-Burland’s Egypt in Italy: Visions of Egypt in Roman Imperial Culture, and I had to pass on this section for obvious reasons:

A nice example of creative Roman adaptation of Egyptian material culture comes from the south Italian city of Beneventum. Here, in the late 80s AD, a local civic benefactor called Rutilius Lupus commissioned two brand new obelisks of Egyptian granite, probably to adorn the city’s own lavish temple to Isis. In most respects, the dedicatory inscriptions on these obelisks are conventional enough: they record Lupus’s status as a legatus Augusti (“envoy of the Emperor”), and include a prayer to Isis for the health and happiness of the reigning Emperor Domitian. More startling is the fact that these inscriptions are written not in Latin, but in perfect Egyptian hieroglyphic script, complete with ingenious Egyptian paraphrases of technical Latin terms (legatus Augusti becomes “he who runs back and forth for the emperor”). Lupus had clearly gone to some trouble to produce a monument of the highest possible authenticity.

How many people in Rome (let alone Beneventum) could actually read hieroglyphs is another matter. The Romans were fascinated by the hieroglyphic script, and at least some Roman antiquarians made serious efforts to master it. The late Roman historian Ammianus quotes a complete Greek translation of the hieroglyphic inscription on the Circus Maximus obelisk, attributing it to an otherwise unknown figure called “Hermapion”. In a brilliant recent article, Amin Benaissa has shown that this mysterious Hermapion must in fact be the well-known scholar Apion of Alexandria, who lived in Rome during the early Julio-Claudian period and who wrote a monumental encyclopedia, the Aegyptiaca, on the history, geography, religion and customs of Egypt.

Apion’s translation of the Circus Maximus obelisk-inscription is an odd mixture of creative intelligence and outrageous muddle. The Egyptian titulature of Ramesses II, “Horus, powerful bull, son of Seth, golden Horus, chosen by Re”, is rendered by Apion as “powerful Apollo, son of Helios, bright-shining, chosen by Helios”. The Greco-Roman gods Apollo and Helios (“Sun”) are perfectly plausible equivalents for the Egyptian deities Horus and Re (the Egyptian sun god). Apion seems to have been baffled by the hieroglyphic sign for “Seth”, and so simply adds another reference to Helios. As Swetnam-Burland nicely puts it, “The act of translation here is twofold, both linguistic and cultural, translating the words of the Egyptian language while transforming their meaning into terms readers standing outside Egyptian culture could understand”.

It had never occurred to me that some Romans knew Egyptian, but of course they did. The whole review is worth reading; it starts with a point that had never occurred to me, that the Romans would have found it “very peculiar” that the British brought home so little from the Raj:

Two centuries of British rule in India ended up leaving virtually no mark on the architecture and material culture of the imperial mother country. Victorian London built no mosques or Hindu temples to cater for ardent English Indophiles; no looted statues of Shiva or Buddha were set up on The Mall to commemorate the capture of Lucknow or the Younghusband expedition.

An exception is the startling “Islamo-Palladian” Sezincote House in Gloucestershire.

Speech Recognition for Newly Documented Languages.

Alexis Michaud writes for HimalCo (Himalayan Corpora, which “proposes to build parallel corpora for three sub-groups of the Sino-Tibetan family, covering a total of 8 little-described oral languages”):

Automatic speech recognition tools have strong potential for facilitating language documentation. This blog note reports on highly encouraging tests using automatic transcription in the documentation of Yongning Na, a Sino-Tibetan language of Southwest China. After twenty months of fieldwork (spread over twelve years, from 2006 to 2017), 14 hours of speech had been recorded, of which 5.5 hours were transcribed (200 minutes of narratives and 130 minutes of morphotonology elicitation sessions). Oliver Adams, the author of mam, an open-source software tool for developing multilingual acoustic models, volunteered to experiment with these data. He trained a single-speaker automatic speech transcription tool over the transcribed materials and applied it to untranscribed audio files. The error rate is low: on the order of 11% of errors in phoneme identification. This makes the automatic transcriptions useful as a canvas for the linguist, who corrects mistakes and produces the translation in collaboration with language consultants.

There’s a detailed description of the results, as well as a link to the submitted version of the paper. Boy, a useful automatic transcription tool would be a godsend — think how much effort goes into doing it manually. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Language and the “Arts of Resistance”.

I have long revered James C. Scott for his fierce focus on (to quote Wikipedia) strategies of resistance to various forms of domination, but I have also suspected that (like many scholars with an ideological focus) he was oversimplifying and ignoring facts that didn’t fit his theory, so I was glad to read Susan Gal‘s sympathetic but critical “Language and the ‘Arts of Resistance’” (Cultural Anthropology 10.3 [Aug. 1995]: 407-424), a review of Scott’s book Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (I’m afraid it’s behind a paywall unless you, like me, have access to JSTOR). Much of it is not of LH relevance, but Gal says that in a central chapter Scott’s “goal is to detail the linguistic mechanisms of resistance,” and I’ll excerpt some of the sections dealing with language:

More important, Scott’s equation of power with lack of expressive constraint flies in the face of cross-cultural evidence. Extensive ethnographic case studies have demonstrated that in some societies it is the holders of greatest power who must restrain themselves physically, linguistically, and often in the expression of emotion exactly because it is superior restraint that culturally and ideologically defines and justifies their power, enabling them to properly exercise it. In this sense, the link between linguistic forms and their functions is constructed and mediated by local ideologies of self, language, and power. The indirectness and allusive quality of Malagasy men’s speech (Ochs 1974 [Norm-Makers and Norm-Breakers: Uses of Speech by Men and Women in a Malagasy Community. In Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking. Richard Bauman and Joel Sherzer, eds. Pp. 125-143. New York: Cambridge University Press]), the linguistic inarticulateness, even ungrammaticality, of Wolof nobles (Irvine 1990 [Registering Affect: Heteroglossia in the Linguistic Expression of Emotion. In Language and the Politics of Emotion. Catherine A. Lutz and Lila Abu-Lughod, eds. Pp. 126-161. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press]), the strenuous restraint in performance required of monarchs in the Balinese theater state (Geertz 1980 [Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press]), and the muting of interactional gestures among educated, high-status Javanese (Errington 1988 [Structure and Style in Javanese: A Semiotic View of Linguistic Etiquette. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press]) are only the best known of such examples. In short, there is no simple, universal relation between social power and the form in which emotion is expressed, exactly because the construction and expression of affective states is mediated by linguistic ideology.

What is odd about this part of Scott’s argument is that he himself provides counterevidence to his major claims in the course of making other points. Indeed, it is a general and irritating characteristic of the book that Scott often denies in one place a point he has demonstrably asserted in another.

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Real-Time Translation via Headphone?

Hayley Tsukayama reviews “Google’s translating headphones” for the Washington Post:

Google has set out to make its mark on the headphone world with Pixel Buds — wireless headphones that can control your phone and that claim to translate conversations in real time. But how do they stack up? Google sent us a pair to review to find out. […]

To be honest, it’s not exactly real-time. You call up the feature by tapping on your right earbud and asking Google Assistant to “help me speak” one of 40 languages. The phone will then open the Google Translate app. From there, the phone will translate what it hears into the language of your choice, and you’ll hear it in your ear. So, if you’re speaking to someone and they say “Où est la bibliothèque?” you will then hear “Where is the library?” in your ear. Then, when it’s your turn to speak, tap and hold the right earbud to have what you say translated and broadcast out of your phone.

The translation feature is promising but not perfect. Translation doesn’t happen at conversational speed — this is not Star Trek’s universal translator or Douglas Adams’s Babel fish. Still, it is much better than a phrase book. While human translators need not fear that they may be without a job, it could be good for travelers or others who want to have a simple, if somewhat halting, chat in another language.

It’s an interesting idea and I’m glad to have read about it (thanks, Eric!), but I might not have posted it except that it gives me a hook on which to hang this anecdote from Anatoly Vorobey (quoting Liza Rozovsky): “When I asked him why he had left, he talked for a long time in German, and finally the telephone answered me [i.e., translated his answer] in a female voice: ‘Because I was stupid.'”

Il Kaulata Maltia.

Karl Farrugia posts about Il Kaulata Maltia – The only extant copy of the first journal in Maltese for the Asian and African studies blog of the British Library:

The turning point in the history of Maltese publications was the liberalisation of the press in 1839, which formally came into force in March of that year following a wider drive for political autonomy in the British colony throughout that decade. The earliest wave of independent newspapers to be published in Malta came on the heels of this development. These newspapers were a largely multilingual affair, with the vast majority being in Italian or English, bilingual Italian and English (Il Mediterraneo, BL NEWS8160 NPL), and even trilingual in Italian, English and French (Il Corriere Maltese, BL NEWS8160 NPL). However, a number of short lived journals in Maltese started popping up at the same time, with one issue of the English-language publication The Harlequin published on the 6th of December, 1838, under the title L’Arlecchin, jeu Kaulata Inglisa u Maltìa, (Cassola, 2011,p. 22), being entirely in the vernacular. One month later, on the 15th of January, 1839, the first issue of the first Maltese journal Il Kaulata Maltia was published followed by two other issues. Only one copy of the first issue was thought to have survived in a private collection in Malta, and a reproduction of its frontispiece was first published by Ġużè Cassar Pullicino (1964). The second and third issues have thus far eluded researchers for decades until I recently discovered a copy of the full three-issue set in the British Library newspaper collection (view Kaulata pdf here).

The editor was James Richardson, “an Anglican missionary for the Church Missionary Society (CMS) who was also the editor of the aforementioned The Harlequin as well as The Phosphorous.” The British government did not allow publication of material of a religious nature intended for local circulation, and in any case Maltese literacy was a recent phenomenon (from an 1831 article in CMS’s The Missionary Register: “The Maltese, in general, are not a reading people, and their language can scarcely be said to be a written language: it is only a few years since it was reduced to writing; and nearly all the books which have ever, to my knowledge, been published in it have been published within a very short time”).
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Lin Shu and The Legacy of the Parisian Lady.

Mikael Gomez Guthart writes for the Forward about a remarkable translator:

Although you may never have heard the name Lin Shu, it should be featured in every book on literature history.

[Lin] Shu, a self-taught scholar, originated from the region of Fujian in southwest [sic; should be southeast] China. An heir to the Qing Dynasty — the last to have reigned over the Chinese Empire — he was a painter, calligrapher, novelist, poet, essayist and translator.

In the late 19th century, he penned the first literary translations to adorn the shelves of Chinese libraries. […] He first promoted writers from England, then France, the United States, Sweden and Germany, although he did not speak nor read any language other than his own. […]

With the help of 19 successive assistants, he translated, or more accurately, rewrote close to 200 classics of western literature by Honoré de Balzac, William Shakespeare, Alexander Dumas and Alexander Dumas fils, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henrik Ibsen, Montesquieu, Victor Hugo, Anton Chekhov, and Pierre Loti, among others. Some of his adaptations even became bestsellers in early 20-century China, such as “The Lady of the Camellias,” renamed “The Legacy of the Parisian Lady of the Camellias.” More fascinating and mysterious still, 50 or so of his unpublished translations are said to stem from texts whose authors and source languages remain a mystery to this day. Masterpieces of which we know nothing are among these lost manuscripts. […]

In 1921, Lin Shu tried his hand at “Don Quixote” from an English translation dating back to 1885. His assistant, Chen Jialin, had attended university in England as part of his higher education and appeared competent enough to read the story to Lin Shu. But as it turned out, he interspersed his version of the tale with invented dialogue and shortened it by many chapters, including the book’s famed prologue; in total, 285 pages that formed the first part of Miguel de Cervantes’s masterpiece were missing — a fact somewhat reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Pierre Menard” about the secret initiative of a writer who aspired to rewrite the first opus of Don Quixote.

“This Biography of the Crazed Knight” (or “The Life of the Bewitched Knight,” depending on the translation) was published in 1922 in Shanghai, stronghold of the Chinese book industry, then nicknamed the “Paris of the Orient” owing to its publishers, printers, and literary cafés. Lin Shu died of illness two years later; this partial Quixote was to be his last work of words.

It’s worth noting that “Don Quixote de La Mancha” recounts the tribulations of an old ailing man with a passion for novels about chivalry, and was purportedly translated from a text in Arabic that Cervantes astutely attributed to a Muslim historian. The fake-translator trick had been a much-used sleight of hand since the 14th century among authors of chivalrous literature, who often pretended to have translated their writings from Tuscan, Tartar, Florentine, Greek, Hungarian, and even unidentified languages. Literary modernity thus emerged in 1605 with a work that was supposedly a translation and whose main character was a reader of novels. The circle was skillfully complete. […]

I’m particularly struck by the “texts whose authors and source languages remain a mystery to this day.” I should note that the article was translated from Yiddish by Susan Brown. Or so they say… Thanks, Trevor!

The Mermaids who Dried Out.

Patricia Palmer,a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English, King’s College, London, writes about English, Irish, and Ireland in an article first published in 2005; once again, the linked piece is long and complex enough it defies summary, so I’ll just quote a few bits to whet your appetite:

We lived in a landscape of strange and obdurate names. My grandmother came from Cumeenduassig, my grandfather from Tureenafersh. Years later, I would be bewitched by the transparency of English placenames: Juniper Hill, Milton-under-Wychwood, Woodstock; you knew, at one level at least, where you were. But to grow up in Kerry was to be at play in a landscape where names guarded their secrets closely. We swam in Coumeenoole, climbed Beenkeragh and sailed out to Ilauntannig from Scraggane Pier in the Maharees. In one sense, these places meant everything. But in another, they drew a veil over our world, locating us in a landscape of sound effects rather than sense. Of course, if we picked away at the Ordinance Surveyors’ haphazard nineteenth century anglicisations and reconstructed the original Irish name, we could lift the veil for a moment. My grandmother would come not from mesmeric but meaningless ‘Cumeenduassig’, but from Coimín dú easaigh, ‘the dark little coomb of the waterfalls’.

The poet John Montague speaks of a similar disorientation growing up in South Tyrone: ‘The whole landscape a manuscript / we had lost the skill to read’. What is lost when a placename becomes detached from meaning, and becomes just a sound, is the connection between a place and its history: space is set adrift from time. Irish history and mythology are written onto the face of Ireland to a degree that is unusual elsewhere in Europe. (You have to read the journals of Captain Vancouver, splattering the names of midshipmen and misadventures – Puget Sound, Deception Pass – all over the intimately named haunts of the Salish and Kwakiutl people on the Canadian Pacific to get a similar sense of place sacralised through naming – and a similar sense of loss.) Slieve Mish, which I look out on as I write, is not only a mist-covered hill, but a repository of memory. It was there, the ninth-century Book of Invasions tells us, that the Milesian invaders met Banba, a queen of the Tuatha De Danann, and her druids. And when the Milesians braved the magic mist of her tribe and wrested the land of Ireland from them, it was in that epic battle that Mis, a Milesian princess, fell, on the bare mountainside that still bears her name. To live in a landscape where rich, time-layered meanings swim in and out of view, at the mercy of placenames that block access and sound like melodic nonsense words, is to be made acutely aware of language. You learn that English alone cannot fully explain your world; and you are left haunted by the sense of a missing language.

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Imagining Sanskrit Land.

A long Utne article by Patrick McCartney, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, is structured around his search for “a village somewhere in India where everyone speaks Sanskrit”:

Approximately seven years ago, during an Internet search for information about these villages, I came across a clip on YouTube about a Sanskrit-speaking village called Jhiri. In this nationally syndicated news clip the presenter asserted that “almost all the people always converse in Sanskrit.” I found this phrase deeply ambiguous. I wanted to know more, and so, during April and May 2015, I spent four weeks in the village of Jhiri, where I faced exceptionally challenging conditions related to my health, the heat, and the fact that the village does not have electricity or running water.

His description of the trials and tribulations of finding the place is enjoyable (Google Maps was no help):

We stopped countless times at dusty, windy intersections to ask people if they knew how to get to the Sanskrit village. While many had heard of it, even people within the same group offered various potential locations and subsequent directions. On more than one occasion two people standing next to each other pointed in the opposite direction at the same time.

And he has interesting things to say about the sociology of the place:

The attitude of several Sanskrit speakers in Jhiri towards the hybridised Sanskrit they speak is that it ought to be purer. I heard the phrase atiśuddhaṃ bhaviṣyati (it will become more pure) on several occasions when discussing with the villagers the frequent mixing of Sanskrit with Hindi, Malvi, and English that I observed in the village. The community sees this as a sign of impurity that must be countered through the adoption of a purer, higher-register form of Sanskrit that is free of the perceived influence of other languages as well as of the camouflaged use of loan words.

There’s an awful lot about yoga, but that’s understandable given that his work “focuses on various aspects of the transglobal yoga industry,” and if you’re not interested in that you can skim it, as did I. Thanks, JC!


I’m reading Зимние заметки о летних впечатлениях [Winter Notes on Summer Impressions], Dostoevsky’s delightfully acerbic account of his 1862 trip to Europe, with attacks on Western/socialist rationality (tell someone you’ll feed them and guarantee them work in exchange for a tiny drop of freedom, but “no, even that droplet is too heavy”), and I’ve reached the final chapter, which is called Брибри и мабишь [Bribri and ma biche]. He says the Parisian bourgeois normally calls his wife mon epouse or ma femme, but if he’s deeply moved or wants to deceive her, he calls her ma biche ‘my doe.’ So far, so good; biche is in the dictionaries with that sense (‘darling’). But then he says the loving wife playfully calls her husband bribri, and I can find no other trace of this word (the search results are unhelpfully filled by an indigenous people of Costa Rica whose language has nasal harmony). It is not in even the largest print or online dictionaries, and a Google Books search turned up only a page in Capucine Motte’s novel Apollinaria that quotes this very passage (in French translation) and says “elle regarde ces deux mots dans son dictionnaire français, sans succès.” So as a last resort I turn to the Varied Reader: any thoughts on this mysterious term of affection?