Archives for November 2017

Complexity in Language.

The Rise and Fall of the English Sentence by Julie Sedivy is one of those long, meaty articles that make too many points to summarize briefly, so I’ll just quote a few bits and urge you to read the whole thing:

Languages with very simple sentence structure are, for the most part, oral languages. It’s the languages that have a culture of writing, developed over a long span of time, that display a fondness for stacking clauses onto one another to create towering sentences. This pattern raises the possibility that the invention of writing, a very recent innovation tagged on to the very last millennia of human evolution, can dramatically alter a language’s linguistic niche, spurring the development of elaborate sentence structure, and leading to the shedding of other features, on a timescale that cannot be achieved through biological evolution. If that’s so, then the languages that many of us have grown up with are very different from the languages that have been spoken throughout the vast majority of human existence.

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Uzan uthise.

I generally find lists of “untranslatable” words irritating; they tend to consist of variations on “comfortable” and “longing” plus a few implausible items alleged to mean, say, “the sensation of dipping your pinky finger into a pond freshly dappled by rain.” Like “funny things my students write in their papers,” you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all. But Shashank Bhargava has a much better idea in What is untranslatable? Ten translators from Indian languages list their candidates: “In an effort to understand the struggles and the ingenuity that goes behind translating literature, we asked some of India’s best-known translators about the things they have found the hardest to translate.” Here’s the first, by Aruni Kashyap:

Recently, I translated Arunachali writer Yeshe Dorje Thongchi’s short story The Smell of Bamboo Blossoms to English, written in Assamese. I found the first line of the short story very hard to translate: Kameng noit enduror uzan uthise.

Now, “uzan uthise” in Assamese refers to a very specific phenomenon during the monsoon, when freshwater fish start to breed after the first showers. When this happens, mature fish swim up to the surface of the water bodies, making it very easy to catch them. People choose this time to catch fish with their nets because it ensures high yields.

This makes the phrase difficult to translate to English. Literally, it means the river/pond is swarming with fish because when they want to breed, they come to the surface, making them look voluminous. But “uzan uthise” means not just the swarming of a large number of fishes to the surface, but also their behaviour during breeding.

In this short story, Thongchi uses this phrase to describe the growth in the population of rats in Arunachal after consuming bamboo flowers. He wasn’t necessary referring to the activity of reproduction, but after consuming bamboo flowers the rats were reproducing in enormous numbers anyway, forcing them to cross the river in thousands in search of food and consume everything on their way. The opening sentence describes this phenomenon of rats crossing the river en masse.

Isn’t that fascinating? And this, from V Ramaswamy on Bengali, resonated strongly with me:

For me the novel is the language, not the plot, which is merely a device through which the language is expressed. A little bit of the nature and quality of that language can be conveyed in translation but the auditory experience is entirely lost.

Similarly, in Bangla there are two registers of writing the language, shuddha or formal, and cholti or spoken. So when you have the two registers appearing next to each other, you can do this or that to render it in English, but the fact is that it achieves nothing. The nature of the act of reading this in the original can be explained, but it is not experienced in its details, with all its cognitive linkages.

Yes, “the novel is the language, not the plot” — that’s a concept I’ve tried to express more than once, but never managed such concision. Thanks, Trevor!

Bad Lucky Goat.

Joe Parkin Daniels writes for the Guardian about an intriguing new movie:

Bad Lucky Goat is the first film ever written and produced in San Andres-Providencia creole, the distinct variant of Caribbean English spoken on Providence and its larger sister island, San Andres.

The movie – which tells the story of a brother and sister who accidentally kill a goat with their parents’ car on the eve of tourist season – is the first feature project by the Colombian director Samir Oliveros, who hopes the film can serve as a testament to the island’s language and culture.

“We knew from the beginning it was going to be 100% in creole, and in [mainland] Colombia, people don’t even know that they speak creole in Old Providence,” said Oliveros. “We wanted to showcase the island as it is – that’s never been done before.”

The creole spoken in Old Providence shares most of its vocabulary with English, and sounds close to typical Caribbean English, though it borrows certain phrases and grammatical tics from Spanish and a host of African languages.

The trailer looks good, the music is delightful, and of course it’s fun to hear the dialect, but I’d almost be willing to post about it just for the title Bad Lucky Goat. Although the actual title seems to be Day of the Goat — it’s a bit confusing. Anyway, thanks, Bathrobe and Yoram!

Dracula in Translation.

Alison Kroulek provides six facts about Dracula around the world that you might not have heard before; my favorites:

Dracula’s origins are lost in translation.
“[T]he mistranslation of a 15th-century poem dramatically changed the poet’s intent and poet’s intent and let to a misleading interpretation of Bram’s intentions. In describing the cruel actions of Vlad Dracula III against Saxon traders in Transylvania, Michael Beheim . . . wrote that Vlad washed his hands in the blood of his enemies. A portion of the poem was translated incorrectly, telling of Vlad dipping his bread into a bowl and drinking the blood of his dead enemies, thus labeling him as a vampire.”

An Icelandic translation of Dracula from 1901 is actually a different story.
The original Icelandic translation of Dracula is actually a different novel, with a different title and an altered plot. The Icelandic version is called Makt Myrkranna, or Powers of Darkness. Makt Myrkranna condenses the second part of the book, which takes place after the Count arrives in England. According to Dracula expert Hans Corneel de Roos, the result is a novel “more exciting and elegant than Dracula itself.” Translator Valdimar Ásmundsson also made the original novel’s sexual undertones more explicit.

Other fun facts: the first language Dracula was translated into was Hungarian, and most Romanians had no idea what Stoker’s novel was about until after the fall of communism. Thanks, Trevor!

Smith’s Loseff.

Gerald (G. S.) Smith, now that he’s retired as Professor of Russian at Oxford, is devoting himself to continuing his project of translating the late Lev Loseff (Лев Лосев; I quoted one of his poems here and wrote about his biography of Joseph Brodsky here and here). He’s putting them up at the Lev Loseff blog, each translation followed by the original Russian and sometimes notes to explain allusions, and I urge you to investigate them if you love good poetry of the formal/tradtional sort. At the moment the top entry is “D’you hear me… / Ты слышишь ли…,” so the first thing that greeted me was this quatrain:

D’you hear me, the shutters are open, hey you, rise and shine,
unwashed and uncombed, as you are, just get yourself out,
to where some enamel’s been chipped from the rim of the sky,
and daybreak holds forth with its whistling and steaming spout.

If you like that, you’ll probably want to spend some time there. I learned about it via this post by Anatoly Vorobei, in which he quotes and rightly praises “Documentary,” Smith’s version of Loseff’s “Документальное”; the one thing I don’t like is his translation of these lines:

Там русский царь в вагоне чахнет,
играет в секу и в буру.

Stuck in his airless railway carriage,
the Tsar plays snap and more besides.

“Stuck in his airless railway carriage” doesn’t convey the sense of чахнет, which means ‘withers away, goes into a decline, becomes exhausted or weak’ (a pretty important sense in the context of WWI); more importantly, “snap and more besides” is just awful. The Russian means ‘plays seka and burá,’ two simple-minded card games — in the former (also called сика or три листа ‘three leaves/sheets’ and traditionally played by coachmen), each player is dealt three cards and the winner is the one with the highest point total according to an agreed-on system of values (the maximum is 33); in the latter (also called тридцать одно ‘31′ and apparently associated with criminals), the winner is whoever gets 31 points when the deck is fully dealt. I guess “snap,” though even more simple-minded, is a reasonable substitute, but “and more besides”? Come on, that’s just lazy, and it throws this reader right out of the poem for a moment.

But that’s only a minor quibble; the translations are lively and provide a great deal of pleasure, and I’m even learning new words (like кемарить ‘to doze, snooze’). A great way to start the day!

On Sounding Natural.

Victor Mair’s latest Log post is about Mandarin Chinese, but its implications are far more general. He begins:

When I began studying Mandarin over half a century ago, I very quickly developed a pet phrase […]: lǎoshí shuō 老實說 / 老实说 (“to tell the truth; honestly”), After I married one of the best Mandarin teachers on earth (Chang Li-ching) several years later, she corrected me when I said my favorite phrase. She told me that I made it sound like lǎoshī shuō 老師說 / 老师说 (“teacher says”).

Now, I know my tones very well, and can tell the difference between first and second tone. I’m also able to produce them clearly and distinctly. So it wasn’t a problem with my being incapable of distinguishing tonally in my speech between lǎoshí shuō and lǎoshī shuō. Something else was wrong with the way I said “lǎoshí shuō” (“honestly speaking”) that made it sound like “lǎoshī shuō” (“teacher says”).

He goes into great deal about what that “something” was, and gives similar examples from spoken Nepali. As I said in a comment there, it applies to much more than just Chinese:

I’ve never heard a convincing example of spoken Ancient Greek on those videos that purport to provide one, because the people speaking are working so hard to make sure the consonants, vowels, and pitches are correct that they don’t sound like they’re speaking a real language. I’ve even heard this complaint about actors speaking Klingon; it may not be “real,” but if it’s to be believable as a spoken language it has to sound like one, not like a careful combination of painfully learned sounds.


Back in 2005 we discussed the verb “sublate” and its origin in German aufheben (as used by Hegel); I am now here to report, courtesy of Victor Mair at the Log, that the Japanese loanword aufuhēben アウフヘーベン is under consideration for buzzword of the year, as reported by Tomoko Otake in The Japan Times:

Aufheben, a concept by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, also made the cut. The word, which has several contradictory meanings such as “lift up,” “suspend” and “cancel,” was until recently not in the lexicon of most Japanese, but it took the spotlight after Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike used the German word in reference to various plans to repair Tokyo’s venerable Tsukiji fish market. After leaving many reporters and much of the public confused, she said: “It means to stop once and go one level up next.”

Bathrobe comments:

I didn’t even have to look this one up. I heard “aufheben” from a professor of conservative Japanese linguistics in Japan when I was an undergraduate there almost half a century ago. It’s philosophical and intellectual but seems to get a certain amount of use, at least among intellectuals in Japan.

Another commenter, Zeppelin, writes:

I’ve read that Nietzsche, too, is very popular in Japan. Which I find a bit disconcerting, because he’s basically untranslatable. I can’t imagine you’d get much out of his aphorisms if you lose the dense, culturally-specific wordplay and the ability to distinguish the more serious ones from those that mainly exist for the sake of a good pun. Do Japanese philosophers typically study German?

Which seems very odd to me. Is Zeppelin not aware that Nietzsche is (or has been) very popular pretty much everywhere, including the US? For someone who’s allegedly untranslatable, he sure gets around.

A Thousand Miles of Moonlight.

Bathrobe sent me his CJVlang post “A thousand miles of moonlight” explicating the Tang poet Li He’s “On the Frontier”; here’s part of it:

The term 塞 sài refers to the northern frontier beyond which the nomadic peoples lived. For the Chinese this was a military frontier. Tang-dynasty poets including Lu Lun, Li Yi, Wang Changling, and most famously Li Bai, had written poems entitled 塞下曲 sài-xià qǔ ‘Beyond the Border Tunes’, mainly dealing with military deeds and the harshness of military life.

But there are no heroics in Li He’s poem, which is an atmospheric piece filled with gloom and menace. It opens with a reference to the horns blown by the hu (胡 hú), a traditional name for peoples to the north of China which Graham translates as ‘Tartar’. While this is anachronistic — ‘Tartar’ came later in English — it conveys a similar mixture of disdain and fear.

The Chinese historical imagination of the northern frontier was dominated by the Xiongnu or Hunnu, who established an empire covering a huge territory centring on modern Mongolia from the 3rd century BC to the late 1st century AD. During this time they posed a continuing if fluctuating threat to China. The Great Wall (referred to in the poem) formed the boundary between China and the Xiongnu.

Under relations with the Xiongnu the Chinese often sent princesses to marry Xiongnu leaders in an appeasement policy known as heqin (marriage alliance). In an episode that has been celebrated ever since, Emperor Yuan of the Western Han dynasty gave five court ladies (not princesses) to the Chinese-backed Xiongnu leader, Huhanye Chanyu, at a time when the power of the Xiongnu was already waning. One of these women was called Wang Zhaojun, who married Huanyehe, to whom she bore at least two sons and a daughter. After his death, she married his successor (under levirate marriage) and bore him two daughters.

By the time of Li He, these 800-year old events had been considerably embellished and romanticised. Wang Zhaojun (who is now regarded as one of the Four Beauties of ancient China) was depicted as a court lady chosen to be presented to Huhanye Chanyu to satisfy his demand for “a princess”. Although stunningly beautiful, she was chosen on the basis of an unflattering portrait painted by a corrupt court painter to whom she refused to pay a bribe. When the Emperor saw her in the flesh he was mortified but had no choice but to go ahead with his decision. In this version, Wang Zhaojun was homesick for China and eventually committed suicide when ordered to remain with the Xiongnu and marry her own son (as her husband’s successor) after her husband’s death. (In later centuries this story was further embellished so that Wang Zhaojun committed suicide en route to the land of the Xiongnu.)

It’s got much more, including A. C. Graham’s translation, the original poem in characters and pinyin with morpheme-by-morpheme and literal translations of each line, and a nice photo of the supposed Tomb of Wang Zhaojun near Hohhot (one of my favorite exotic place names). Check it out!


Once again I am rewarded for my stubbornness in pursuing my chronological crawl through Russian literature. The other day I finished Tolstoy’s Казаки [The Cossacks], and in my post about it I complained about its length and repetitiveness and concluded “at this point in their careers, I would have to say that Dostoevsky is way ahead of him.” That story was published in January 1863, and the next item on the agenda, published in February, was his Поликушка [Polikushka]; when I finished it, I marveled (as I might have done in 1863) that Tolstoy had suddenly caught up. It contains at least twice the plot in a third the length; whereas The Cossacks feels like a puffed-up short story, Polikushka feels like a full-length novel compressed into fifty pages. More importantly, it is brilliantly told, with the author’s mature manner on full display; it gives the same feeling of “this is real life, not just a story” that is so common a reaction to War and Peace. How did he do it?
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The Tongs.

A hilarious series of tweets by Nili‏ @sharknoises; since it’s short, I’ll just copy the whole thing, conveniently compiled by Alon, who sent it to me:

My entire life is a lie

I was just eating dinner with my parents and my mom asks in Farsi for me to pass her the remote control. I was like “…What?”

Mom: points to tongs [in Farsi] give me the remote control.
Me: ……You mean the tongs?
Mom: yeah, please pass it over.

After I pass it over I’m like “why did you call the tongs the [Persian word for remote control]?” & she just very nonchalantly blows my mind

Mom: [word] is just a filler word, you know. I couldn’t remember the word for tongs, so I said [word].
Me: ………….What. No. What?

For 28 years of my life, the word in Farsi that I thought meant remote control was actually just the Farsi equivalent of “thingamabob.” WTF. I just sat there, with my mouth hanging open, for a solid minute. My mom was like “wait… You thought that was the actual word for remote?”

Yes, mother!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I did think that!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I learned Farsi from you and dad!! You guys call it that word!!!!!!!!!

Me: well what’s the actual word for remote control then?
Mom: um…. I don’t know? Says in English with a Persian accent “con-trol”?

And my mom is just like “why is this such a big deal?” Like she didn’t just shake the foundation of my entire world!!!! “Why is this such a big deal??” I learned Farsi from you guys!! How much of my knowledge of Farsi is just fake words that y’all made up?????

Me: so if I was at someone’s house and I ask where the [word] is, they’d just look at me like WTF are you talking about?
Mom: [laughs at me]

Me: what else can I not trust??? What else is fake???? Are y’all even my real parents????
Mom: [keeps laughing at me]
My life is a lie!!!!! I just will never know where the next blow will come from!!! Which of the words that I know are going to be the next fake one!! From now on I shall only communicate using interpretive dance

Thanks, Alon!