What Would Réics Carló Do?

The Cathal Ó Sándair website, which “aims to celebrate the life and work of Cathal O Sándair (1922-1996) and his characters,” has an essay by Peter Berresford Ellis first published in June 1988 in The Irish Democrat, What would Réics Carló do?, that introduced me to this apparently largely forgotten author:

IN ‘The Irish Post’ readers’ letters column, a contributor recently asked, in an aside, what would Réics Carló have done in a particular situation. As any reader of popular Irish literature (I mean popular literature in the Irish language) knows, Réics Carló is Ireland’s answer to Sexton Blake. The unexpected reference set me thinking about Reics and his creator, writer Cathal Ó Sándair. […]

Certainly, Réics Carló has been one of the most popular literary characters in Irish juvenile reading for four decades. The books are, indeed, the most popular Irish language books ever written. Sad that outside of Irish speakers, very few Irish peojrie would recognise Réics Carló in the same way that they would recognise the English Sexton Blake or the American Nick Carter. That is why I was particularly intrigued to see his name in a letter in ‘The Irish Post’. […]

Cathal was actually born in England in 1922 of an English father and an Irish mother. His mother was from Dublin and it was in Dublin that Cathal received most of his education before joining the Irish Civil Service, working in Customs and Excise. He began writing when he was still young and was only twenty-years-old when his first thriller Na Marbh a d’Fhill (The Dead Return, 1942) was published. It featured his detective hero Réics Carló who, as Cathal freely admits, was ‘an attempt to create an Irish Sexton Blake.’ […]

Cathal Ó Sandair created a popular literature for juveniles, providing them with the type of fare they wanted to devour and not the heavy pious tomes their elders thought they should read and which bored them out of their minds and added to their rejection of the Irish language. A certain well-known Irish author recently told me: ‘If we had all been raised on the stories of Cathal Ó Sándair as children then the Irish language might be in a more secure position today.’ […]

Once again, I emphasise that it is a sad comment that he had not received any higher literary acclaim in his own land. There is a particularly snobbish element, not confined to Ireland, that because a person writes ‘popular fiction’ it is not worthy of serious literary comment. What was Shakespeare doing but writing ‘popular fiction’? In Irish one is expected to turn out esoteric elitism and not something for the enjoyment of the majority of the people.

I recall the criticisms levelled at my illustrious fellow columnist, Donall Mac Amhlaigh, when his now classic book Dialann Deorai was published.

He was accused of using ‘rather colourless language’ which was unfavourably compared with the literary richness of Mairtln Ó Cadhain. Mac Amhlaigh was writing in the everyday language of the people and not in a bygone literary style. At least Eoghan Ó Tuairisc put his finger on matters when he recognised this fact and wrote: ‘Mac Amhlaigh, I see now, is one of the real revolutionaries!’

It is not the first time the critics have cavilled at writers changing from the archaic language of literary elitism to the language of everyday life. In happened in Ireland in the 17th Century when complaints were made that Bedell’s Irish translation of the Bible (1685) lacked ‘the purity of literacy Irish’ and was therefore a bad translation because it was written in the caint na ndaoine — the language of the people. That work actually marked the change from bardic literature to modern literature. Mac Amhlaigh’s work marked a similar change and so does the work of Ó Sandair.

The very brief Wikipedia article explains that he was born Charles Saunders and his family moved to Ireland when he was a child; for some reason it devotes one of its few sentences to this factoid: “His uncle was a professional boxer named Darky Saunders, who once fought Jimmy Wilde.” I wonder how the name Réics Carló comes across in Irish; it’s obviously foreign (I presume Réics = Rex and Carló is, well, Carlo), but what kind of connotations does it have? At any rate, my thanks to Trevor Joyce for sending me the link back in 2015!

Scotching the Snake.

My wife asked me about the verb scotch, as in “to scotch a rumor”; I looked it up, and the history is so interesting I had to post about it. The OED entry (updated June 2011) explains it well:

1. a. transitive. To make an incision or incisions in (esp. the flesh); to cut, score, gash. Formerly also †intransitive. Now rare.
?c1425 (▸c1412) T. Hoccleve De Regimine Principum (Royal 17 D.vi) (1860) 134 Withe his nailes cracched he his face, And skocched [a1450 Harl. 4866 scocched] it withe knyves and torent.
1906 C. M. Doughty Dawn in Brit. IV. xvi. 217 Cruithni other bands Are named; for birds’ and beasts’ similitudes, Seen scotcht in their tough flesh, or prickt, with woad.
1921 J. Dos Passos Three Soldiers vi. iii. 402 ‘Say, is your face badly cut up, Al?’ ‘No, it’s just scotched, skin’s off; looks like beefsteak, I reckon.’

b. transitive. In conjunction with notch. Cf. out of all scotch and notch at scotch n.1 Phrases. Now rare.
Chiefly after or with reference to Shakespeare: see quot. a1616.
a1616 W. Shakespeare Coriolanus (1623) iv. v. 191 He scotcht him, and notcht him like a Carbinado.
1976 M. Long Unnatural Scene iii. 61 The scotching, notching and broiling of Rome and its wars.

2. a. transitive. To render (something dangerous or undesirable) temporarily harmless or less harmful, without destroying it completely. Originally and frequently in the snake is scotched, but not killed and variants (see note).
After Theobald’s reading of Macbeth iii. ii. 13 (see quot. 1726). The word was previously rendered scorch’d, as it appears in the First Folio; subsequent (esp. 19th-cent.) editions of Shakespeare often use scotch’d, though modern scholars usually prefer scorch’d. Cf. scorch v.3
1726 L. Theobald Shakespeare Restored App. 186 If I am not deceiv’d therefore, our Poet certainly wrote thus; We have scotch’d the Snake, not kill’d it. She’ll close, and be her self.
1759 S. Fielding Hist. Countess of Dellwyn II. iv. ii. 158 The Snake was scotched, but not killed.
1996 Cycle Touring & Campaigning Apr. 25/4 So far, the snake has been scotched, not killed.

b. transitive. To crush, stamp out (something dangerous or undesirable).
1825 Q. Rev. 32 277 If we, in our own language, were to scotch the insidious forgetfulness, we might, perhaps, be accused of ‘coarse and insulting abuse’.
1880 A. H. Huth Life & Writings H. T. Buckle I. iii. 189 Attempting to scotch the pestiferous germs of heresy.
1908 Expositor Dec. 527 Fanaticism which constitutes a danger to mankind should be scotched.
1999 P. Gregory Virgin Earth 543 More particular were the thanks of the Quakers who came under his protection while he scotched the last of the royalist rebellions.

So a variant reading of a Shakespeare line wrenched a verb out of its semantic course and sent it off in a different direction; my Signet Classic edition of Macbeth has “scorched” and doesn’t even mention Theobald’s reading, but the Arden edition edited by Pamela Mason and Sandra Clark has this footnote:

scorched slashed or scored, as with a knife (OED scorch v.3). Theobald’s emendation ‘scotch’d’ has often been adopted, and Shakespeare does use ‘scotch’ as a verb elsewhere (e.g. Cor 4.5.189–90: ‘he scotched him and notched him’); but he also uses ‘scorch’ meaning gashed or slashed in CE 5.1.183: ‘to scorch your face and to disfigure you’. The snake is Duncan, who although dead lives on in his sons.

The etymology is “< Anglo-Norman escocher, eschocher to pierce (skin) (c1193) < escoche notch (c1190) < es- es- prefix + Old French coche notch (see cock v.4)”; AHD adds “(probably from Latin coccum, scarlet oak berry, from Greek kokkos).”

Cricket in Many Accents.

Trevor Joyce sent Samir Chopra’s The Allrounder essay “Linguistic Lenses” to me in 2014; it’s so old the link has rotted and I have to provide an archived one, but dammit, it’s still a good piece and I’m posting it!

I heard cricket in many accents.

In Indian English, the language of the cities and metropolis: the clipped middle-class intonations of All India Radio commentators like Ashish Ray and Narottam Puri, the dry drawl of the Nawab of Pataudi, the slight lilt of Dicky Rutnagur. There was the Hindi commentary of Sushil Doshi and Jasdev Singh; I did not understand every one of their flowery Sanskritized descriptions, but I could sense their excitement, well-practiced in their stints at hockey games.

When I discovered the BBC and Test Match Special on my short-wave radio, a new host of accents entertained me: I did not then know I was listening to distinctive regional variations of the English language in its homeland. On the far-end of the short-wave dial was Radio Australia and Australian accents: sometimes broader and tangier, reflecting a country background, sometimes the flatter urban varietal, closer to the English accent but still bearing unmistakable traces of the Strine.

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Chinese Prose Rhetoric.

You can read Christoph Harbsmeier’s “The Rhetoric of Premodern Chinese Prose Style” in a draft version (pdf) or in its final form as a chapter in Victor Mair (ed.), Columbia History of Chinese Literature (Academia.edu); either way, it’s a very interesting take on an ancient tradition, with suggestive comparisons to the classical West. Some excerpts:

Confucius maintained that when words get their message across, one should stop (Analects 15.41). What was admired in Confucius was his flair for wei yen (subtle speech), which, without being yin (hidden, arcane, riddle-like), achieved that peculiar subtle variety of ming (translucence, perspicuousness) which became so essential to the classical Chinese aesthetic. It was of the essence of this translucent, limpid effect that it was preferably achieved with an austere economy of stylistic means, an apparent sparseness of effort, a naturalness, the elegant light touch.

This ideal of translucence and perspicuousness, then, is not an intellectual clarity brought about by elaborate explicitness, definiteness of meaning. The text is designed to inspire in the reader the congenial but active and even creative production of artistic sense. The texts do not impose meaning, they are designed to inspire the creation of sense. […]

[Read more…]

The Madman’s Library.

Alison Flood at the Graun provides extracts from The Madman’s Library by Edward Brooke-Hitching; they’re all pretty amazing (The Triangular Book of Count St Germain is “an encoded French occult work which boasts the secret to extending life”; Pátria Amada by Vinicius Leôncio is a 7.5-ton compendium of every Brazilian tax code in one volume), but I particularly commend to your attention these:

Book 17th of Notes – Travels in 1818 by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1818)

In 1818, the French natural historian Rafinesque travelled to Kentucky to visit fellow naturalist John James Audubon. Rafinesque became such an irritating house guest that Audubon started to make up local animals to make fun of him, which the Frenchman faithfully recorded and sketched without question. Here there are four fake fish: the “Flatnose Doublefin”, the “Bigmouth Sturgeon”, the “Buffalo Carp Sucker” and the bulletproof “Devil-Jack Diamond fish”.

Poissons, ecrevisses et crab[e]s by Louis Renard (1719)

In the 18th century, Europeans knew very little of Indonesian wildlife. Renard knew even less, but that didn’t stop this Dutch bookseller from confidently producing this vibrant two-volume collection. Thirty years in the making, the 100 plates carry 460 illustrations of marine biology. In the second volume, however, scientific accuracy swiftly becomes a casualty of artistic licence. Many of the fish have distinctly avian and even human features, as well as decorations of sun, moon, star and even top-hat motifs. Highlights include the spiny lobster, Panulirus ornatus, reported to favour a mountain habitat and possessing a penchant for climbing trees and laying red-spotted eggs “as large as those of a pigeon”. The Crabbe-Criarde, we are told, mews like a cat. Or the four-legged fish, the Loop-visch or Poisson courant (Running Fish) of Ambon, of which the writer notes: “I trapped it on the beach and kept it alive for three days in my house, where it followed me around like a very friendly little dog.”

Needless to say, the illustrations are impressive. Thanks, Trevor!

Translating the Uncanny Valley.

Isaac Sligh writes for RusTRANS about the translation he and Viktoria Malik are doing of Victor Pelevin’s fifteenth novel, iPhuck 10 [sic!], which sounds extremely interesting — I really have to start reading Pelevin:

iPhuck 10’s hero is a Machiavellian, suave, and hilarious A.I. algorithm by the name of Porfiry Petrovich, a narrator who exists only in the binary ether, a “spirit”, as he calls himself. While Porfiry’s hobby (if one could call it that) is writing crime novels, he gets his material from his day job as a detective for police headquarters—a nod to that other famous Porfiry Petrovich, the police investigator from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Porfiry announces himself at the novel’s opening with a strange and grave salutation:

“And again, again, hello, my dear and distant friend!”

With his constant chatter to his audience—does he know we’re there, or has he gone crazy, and how much does our suspension of disbelief play a part in determining that?—Porfiry brings to mind the voices of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (from Notes from Underground), Zamyatin’s D-503 (from We), and many other famous narrators of Russian literature.

But, it turns out, these echoes are by no means meant to be subtle—and herein lies one of the hardest (yet most enjoyable) challenges for us as the translators of the text. In fact, Porfiry is chuckling at his readers from the pages of his own book as he notices our recognition of such echoes of classic literature. It turns out that Porfiry has read every single work of classic Russian literature, and knows how to reference and regurgitate it, subtly or obviously, at will. “I am a typical second half of the twenty-first century Russian artificial intelligence,” he quips, “painted in contrasting colors of our historical and cultural memory: I am simultaneously something of a Solzhenitsyn together with a Pasternak.”

As you might imagine, allusions abound, from Mayakovsky to Pushkin to Yesenin. This has kept us on our toes, and presented us with the added task of framing these allusions in such a way—while staying true to the text—as to tip the English-speaking reader off to the reference, and perhaps give some subtle impetus to seek out the original text. To this end, we have attempted to match our translations of such famous pieces as Yesenin’s poem “Goodbye my friend, goodbye” as closely as possible to recognizable popular translations without actually duplicating them.

I find the issue of how to translate (and frame) allusions fascinating; I’ve been thinking of it because I’m reading Andrei Bitov’s Уроки Армении [Lessons of Armenia] and consulting Susan Brownsberger’s translation, and I can’t help but notice that Brownsberger either doesn’t notice or doesn’t explain most of Bitov’s quotes. Where Bitov has «Ах, ничего я не вижу, и бедное ухо оглохло…» she has “Useless my ears, useless the eyes in my head”; Bitov, I presume, expects at least some of his readers to recognize this as a quote from Mandelstam’s poem sequence Armenia, but Brownsberger can hardly expect English-speaking readers to know it, and she should have footnoted it. Later, when Bitov quotes «Что в имени тебе моем…», she has “What’s in a name,” which sends the reader in entirely the wrong literary direction — it’s a quote from a very famous Pushkin poem whose message is more like Ronsard’s “Quand vous serez bien vieille” than Juliet’s onomastic complaint. Elsewhere she doesn’t flag a Tyutchev quotation. I’m not faulting her; this is difficult stuff, and every translator is going to deal with it differently. But Russian literature, more than most, is full of cross-references, and the issue has to be dealt with somehow; I’m glad Sligh and Malik are taking it seriously.

The Languages of Rafiki.

My wife and I saw the Kenyan movie Rafiki, which is quite good (Ebert review), but what brings it to the attention of LH is the language situation, which shocked me (I don’t think that’s too strong a word). I wasn’t surprised when some English sentences were exchanged early on — I realize English is not only a prestige language but an important means of intercommunication worldwide between people with different native tongues — but it soon became apparent that most of the dialogue was in English, used between people who clearly did share a language (I presume the Bantu language in which some remarks were exchanged was Swahili, but it would be nice to know for sure). It’s as if Tolstoy carried on having most of War and Peace in French. I have no idea whether that is an accurate reflection of the way Kenyans of that particular Nairobi neighborhood and/or those particular social spheres speak, or whether it was done to sell the movie abroad more easily (the fact that subtitles are needed even for the English dialogue makes that less likely than it might otherwise be). I will be grateful for any enlightenment.

Unrelated, but I want to mention how pleased I was by the recent Fresh Air interview with Sigrid Nunez about her new novel What Are You Going Through (which sounds good; I’ve never read anything of hers); asked about the title, she said it was from a quote by one of her heroes, Simone Weil: “Quel est donc ton tourment?” and added that you couldn’t translate tourment by the obvious torment because, although it can mean that, here it has the less intense figurative sense ‘anxiety, trouble, worry’ (I don’t remember what word she used; I take those from my trusty old Oxford dictionary). Quite so, and it’s important to remind people not to lazily use the nearest English “equivalent”! (She, like most English speakers, pronounced Weil like “vile” à l’allemande; I say /veɪ/ à la française, even though I’m aware it’s both confusing and impossibly pretentious in English — I can’t help it.)

Which Word Came First?

A fun quiz from M-W: Time Traveler Quiz: Which Word Came First?

Come travel through time the dictionary way to figure out which words entered the English language first. Sometimes it’s easy to tell which one of two words came first: the word telephone probably came before the word Internet. Sure enough, telephone is from the 1844 along with classics like rumormonger and goatee. Internet hails from 1974 along with junk bond and microgravity.

(Note to M-W: You might want to fix “the 1844.”) I’m annoyed with myself for getting three wrong; one would have been hard to get right, but the others were just hasty un-thought-out responses. Maybe next time I’ll turn off the timer…

Also: The Time Traveler, where you can pick a year and see which words are first attested then.


I normally look askance at made-up words, but Anand Giridharadas has come up with a good and useful one in his essay for The.Ink which I hope catches on (even as I know it won’t):

My name is Anand. It means happiness, bliss, contentment. If you’re interested in experiencing these feelings, may I suggest a name other than Anand when coming of age in the United States of America.

The other day, when Senator David Perdue, Republican of Georgia, referred to his colleague of many years as “Kamala-mala-mala, I don’t know, whatever!”, I immediately recognized him. All my life, perhaps like you, I have run up against the unwillingness and inability of many Americans to say my name correctly.[…]

The obvious word for what Perdue did is “mispronunciation.” But I would like to correct that. The proper term is “dispronunciation.” Consider that misinformation is information that merely happens to be false, whereas disinformation is false information purposely spread. Similarly, mispronunciation is people trying too feebly and in vain to say our names — and dispronunciation is people saying our names incorrectly on purpose, as if to remind us whose country this really is.[…]

In my case, I’m not even talking about the pronunciation of my last name here. Look, I would love to live in a society where both names were said right by most people. But I recognize that my last name is difficult. I have heard it mispronounced in India, where it comes from. For the purposes of this discussion, I want to share my bafflement and frustration with the insurmountable difficulty of getting people in the United States of America to say “Anand.”

It’s pronounced “AH-nund.” […] AH + nunned. Faster now — Anand. […] And what I just did is far easier to do out loud […] Yet it has been a lifelong battle to get those five letters, those two syllables, said right. There is “ANNE-ind” and “ah-NAAND” and “AY-nanned.” And those are just the ones I remember. My expectation has never been that anyone should know how to say it before being properly taught. I’m just mystified why it’s so hard after hearing it.

He has some distressing anecdotes (and a great comeback to a public-radio host who kept saying it wrong: “Y’all have no problem saying Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky”). I presume we’re all in agreement that people should make a little more effort, but as I say, I like his term for the malicious version. Try harder, mispronouncers, and knock it off, dispronouncers!


I recently ran across the Wikipedia article Qurabiya:

Qurabiya (also ghraybe, ghorayeba, and numerous other spellings and pronunciations) is a shortbread-type biscuit, usually made with ground almonds. Versions are found in most countries of the former Ottoman Empire, with various different forms and recipes. […]

There is some debate about the origin of the words. Some give no other origin for the Turkish word kurabiye than Turkish, while others have given Arabic or Persian. Among others, linguist Sevan Nişanyan has given an Arabic origin, in his 2009 book of Turkish etymology, from ġurayb or ğarîb (exotic). However, as of 2019, Nişanyan’s online dictionary now gives the earliest known recorded use in Turkish as the late 17th century, with an origin from the Persian gulābiya, a cookie made with rose water, from gulāb, related to flowers. He notes that the Syrian Arabic words ġurābiye/ġuraybiye likely derive from the Turkish.

A typical Wikipedia etymological mishmosh; can anybody say what’s most plausible? (Xerîb?)

Also, courtesy of Trevor Joyce, a brief YouTube clip in which Werner Herzog regrets having been forced at gunpoint to speak French.