Interactions with Arabic Script.

I am informed by bulbul that he is hanging out with Lameen: “He is apparently too busy with his new responsibilities and other work, so it’s up to me to plug his – open access! – new book,” Creating Standards: Interactions with Arabic script in 12 manuscript cultures, ed. by Dmitry Bondarev, Alessandro Gori, and Lameen Souag (De Gruyter, 2019):

Manuscript cultures based on Arabic script feature various tendencies in standardisation of orthography, script types and layout. Unlike previous studies, this book steps outside disciplinary and regional boundaries and provides a typological cross-cultural comparison of standardisation processes in twelve Arabic-influenced writing traditions where different cultures, languages and scripts interact. A wide range of case studies give insights into the factors behind uniformity and variation in Judeo-Arabic in Hebrew script, South Palestinian Christian Arabic, New Persian, Aljamiado of the Spanish Moriscos, Ottoman Turkish, a single multilingual Ottoman manuscript, Sino-Arabic in northwest China, Malay Jawi in the Moluccas, Kanuri and Hausa in Nigeria, Kabyle in Algeria, and Ethiopian Fidäl script as used to transliterate Arabic. One of the findings of this volume is that different domains of manuscript cultures have distinct paths of standardisation, so that orthography tends to develop its own standardisation principles irrespective of norms applied to layout and script types. This book will appeal to readers interested in manuscript studies, sociolinguistics, literacy studies, and history of writing.

Looks very interesting, so I join in plugging it!

Also, I don’t know how long it will last, but Amazon has the Kindle edition of George Steiner’s famous After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation on sale for $1.99; I’ve been wanting to read it for years, so I grabbed it. (Thanks, Eric!)

Russian or French?

I’ve posted more than once about the prevalence of the French language in 19th-century Russia (e.g., 2008, 2013, 2014), and I’ve just run across an extended disquisition on the subject in Dostoevsky’s Дневник писателя [A Writer’s Diary] (and it was a special pleasure because he’d been ranting about the Eastern Question and the need for Russia to rule all the Slavic peoples and take Constantinople and how dare anybody object or doubt Russia’s sacred selflessness). This is in chapter 3 of the July/August 1876 issue, consisting of two linked essays, Русский или французский язык? [The Russian or French language?] and На каком язык говорить будущему столпу своей родины? [In which language should one speak to the future pillar of one’s fatherland?]; I wish there were an online translation to link to, but since there’s not, I’ll translate some of it to give the idea. He’s gone to Bad Ems for his health, as did so many Russians of his day, and from that fact he segues into language:

In Ems you can, of course, tell who’s Russian mainly by that Russian-French way of speaking which is peculiar to Russia alone and which has begun to amaze even foreigners. […] What surprises me is not that Russians don’t talk Russian to each other (it would actually seem odd if they did) but that they think they’re speaking French well. […] Russians speaking French (that is, a great mass of the Russian intelligentsia) can be divided into two groups: those who indisputably speak bad French, and those who imagine that they are speaking like real Parisians (all our high society) but in fact speak as indisputably badly as the first group. […] I myself, for example, on an evening walk by the Lahm, encountered two elderly Russians, a man and a lady, talking in a preoccupied way about something with great significance for their family life, something that clearly worried them. They were full of emotion, but were trying to explain themselves in very bad, bookish, French, in lifeless, awkward phrases, and were having such a hard time getting their thoughts across that one would impatiently suggest a word to the other; nevertheless, it never occurred to them to start explaining themselves in Russian. They preferred to do so badly and even risk not being understood, as long as it was in French.

He goes on to say that the falseness of their French is immediately apparent in their pronunciation; they exaggerate the grasseyement of the r “and do so with impudent boastfulness […] imitating for each other the language of a Petersburg barber’s errand boy.” He says they don’t realize that in order to speak really good French, you have to either be born in France or spend a great deal of time there; you won’t get it from the bonnes and gouverneurs with whom well-brought-up Russians were surrounded. He cites a story from Turgenev about a Russian who goes into the Café de Paris and orders “beftek aux pommes de terre,” only to hear another patron order simply “beftek-pommes” and be struck with terror that since he didn’t use the new chic phrase the waiters will despise him. In the second essay, he complains that Russian literature isn’t taught in school and actually compares learning French from your bonne as a child to masturbation (та ужасная привычка, “that terrible habit”)! Lots of good stuff there, and I was surprised that French was still so prevalent among Russians in the 1870s.

Sbrodeghezzi e potacci.

I was reading Tim Parks’ 2017 LRB review (which may or may not be accessible to nonsubscribers) of Jenny McPhee’s translation of Lessico famigliare (A Family Lexicon) by Natalia Ginzburg, and was struck by this passage, of clear LH interest:

Yet the first impression on opening A Family Lexicon is one of infectious vitality, a quality conspicuous by its absence in the novels.

At the dinner table in my father’s home when I was a girl if I, or one of my siblings, knocked a glass onto the tablecloth, or dropped a knife, my father’s voice would thunder: ‘Watch your manners!’

    If we used our bread to mop up pasta sauce, he yelled: ‘Don’t lick your plates. Don’t dribble! Don’t slobber!’

    For my father dribble and slobber also described modern painting, which he couldn’t stand.

    He would say: ‘You have no idea how to behave at the table! I can’t take you lot anywhere.’

There is a translation problem here. In the Italian, paternal repression (‘we lived in a recurring nightmare filled with my father’s sudden outbursts,’ Ginzburg tells us later) is transformed into comedy by the bizarre words her father uses – sbrodeghezzi (‘dribbles’), e potacci (‘messes’) – originating in Triestine dialect and unknown to most Italians. Though Jenny McPhee’s new version of the book is always sprightly and readable, the English version inevitably loses the fun of these and many other odd words and expressions that turn up in the ‘family lexicon’.

Happily, I was able to google up a 2018 essay by Sarah Axelrod that discusses this very passage in detail, with the original Italian and remarks on how it can affect learners:

Let’s first get into the “easy” part: “Non fate” means “Don’t do.” Fare (the infinitive of “fate”) is a verb that all beginning Italian students know well, because it is so widely applicable that they end up resorting to it all the time when they can’t think of the specific word they want. “Fare” means to do or to make, but the Italian language is littered with delightful little phrases that depart from the literality of doing and making even as they depend on “fare” for their meaning. “Fare la spesa” means to go shopping; “fare due chiacchiere” means to have a chat (two chats?); “fare bella figura” means to show off or to make a good impression.

Now for the tricky part. The closest I can get to “Non fate malagrazie!” is “don’t be rude!” but I would be tempted to say something more like “Don’t do rudenesses!” This sounds funny in English because it actually sounds funny in Italian, too – “malagrazia” is a real word, a noun that means “bad grace,” but as far as I can tell, “fare malagrazie” is not a phrase that exists outside of this father in this family. As for “sbrodeghezzi” and “potacci,” don’t bother looking them up in the dictionary, because you won’t find them. My Italian edition of Lessico famigliare makes liberal use of footnotes to help readers decipher the strange words in the family lexicon, because they don’t exist in standard Italian. For “sbrodeghezzi” the given translation is “porcherie,” meaning anything from “embarrassing mistakes” to “dirty business” and for “potacci” the footnote suggests “pasticci,” meaning “messes” or “trouble;” two words with quite a wealth of meanings in their own right.

So what I tell students is to forget all that. If you want to read the footnotes and say “ah, that’s what a sbrodeghezzo is,” go right ahead (though you’ll still need a dictionary for the supplied synonyms). But try to remember that Natalia Ginzburg did not put those footnotes there, and she does not need you to know what these words mean in a literal sense. Just go ahead, say it to yourself: “z-bro-de-GHE-tsi!” Now say it and roll the R. “Sbrrrrodeghezzi!” That is a goddamn great word. You know some things about this father now. Read the passage again. Kids being kids – knocking a glass over, dropping a knife, dipping bread in sauce. The father thunders “Non fate malagrazie!” and “Non fate sbrodeghezzi! Non fate potacci!”

Incidentally, I am familiar with the name Natalia from Russian, where the antepenultimate is stressed, so I was surprised to learn from Wikipedia that in Italian it’s the penult: [nataˈliːa].

At the Edge of the World.

I recently read Nikolai Leskov’s 1875-76 novella На краю света [At the edge of the world], a tale told by an elderly archbishop (based on Nil) about how, many years ago in Siberia, his heathen guide had saved him during a snowstorm, teaching him a lesson about tolerance; one of the memorable figures in it is the priest Kiriak, who was once renowned for converting the heathen but by the time the narrator arrived was refusing to do so any more. They have a discussion in chapter 4 in which the narrator is alternately charmed and irritated by his stubborn interlocutor, and finally asks him to teach him the local language (which he, unlike the other priests, has taken the trouble to learn):

Clearly and quickly he revealed to me all the secrets of comprehending that speech, so impoverished and laconic that it can barely be called a language. In any case it is no more than a language of animal life, and not of intellectual life, and mastering it is very hard: the turns of speech, short and aperiodic, make it extremely difficult to translate into it any text composed according to the rules of a developed language with complex periods and subordinate clauses; poetic and figurative expressions can’t be translated into it at all, and the concepts conveyed by them would remain inaccessible to this poor people. How can you tell them the sense of the words “Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves” [Matthew 10:16] when they have never seen serpents or doves and cannot even imagine them. They can’t match the words martyr or baptizer or forerunner [John the Baptist is called John the Forerunner in Russian], and if you translate Most Holy Virgin into their words as shochmo Abya, it comes out not as our Mother of God but as some kind of shamanic female divinity — in short, a goddess. It’s even harder to talk about the service of the precious blood or other mysteries of the faith, and to construct for them some sort of theological system or just to say a word about a virgin giving birth without a husband — there’s no point even thinking about it: in the best case they won’t understand a thing, and they may even guffaw right in your face.

Толково и быстро открыл он мне все таинства, как постичь эту молвь, такую бедную и немногословную, что ее едва ли можно и языком назвать. Во всяком разе это не более как язык жизни животной, а не жизни умственной; а между тем усвоить его очень трудно: обороты речи, краткие и непериодические, делают крайне затруднительным переводы на эту молвь всякого текста, изложенного по правилам языка выработанного, со сложными периодами и подчиненными предложениями; а выражения поэтические и фигуральные на него вовсе не переводимы, да и понятия, ими выражаемые, остались бы для этого бедного люда недоступны. Как рассказать им смысл слов: «Будьте хитры, как змии, и незлобивы, как голуби», когда они и ни змеи и ни голубя никогда не видали и даже представить их себе не могут. Нельзя им подобрать слов: ни мученик, ни креститель, ни предтеча, а пресвятую деву если перевести по-ихнему словами шочмо Абя, то выйдет не наша богородица, а какое-то шаманское божество женского пола,— короче сказать — богиня. Про заслуги же святой крови или про другие тайны веры еще труднее говорить, а строить им какую-нибудь богословскую систему или просто слово молвить о рождении без мужа, от девы,— и думать нечего: они или ничего не поймут, и это самое лучшее, а то, пожалуй, еще прямо в глаза расхохочутся.

(I haven’t tried to render the Church Slavonic tinge to his narration, like the archaic word молвь.) I imagine he got the shochmo Abya phrase from Nikolay Ilminsky‘s article Практические замечания о переводах и сочинениях на инородческих языках [Practical remarks on translations and compositions in the languages of national minorities] (1871; available at Google Books), where on p. 182 the same phrase is cited (as Cheremiss, i.e. Mari) with the same explanation. (Ilminsky was an interesting guy who thought “that mother tongue instruction was the key factor in ensuring that nominally orthodox believers could become more committed to these beliefs,” which is the view Leskov has his priest convey.)
[Read more…]

Boat and Ship.

The Merriam-Webster blog has a post on an interesting topic: What’s the Difference Between a ‘Boat’ and a ‘Ship’?:

‘What is the difference between a ship and a boat?’ has a good number of answers, but unfortunately most of these are not couched in the type of precise language a dictionary aims for. Sample responses to this question include ‘You can put a boat onto a ship, but you can’t put a ship onto a boat,’ ‘a boat is what you get into when the ship sinks,’ and ‘a boat is the thing you put gravy in.’

If you were to look for precision by asking this question of ten nautically-inclined people in ten different areas it is possible that you would get a wide range of answers, for the exact moment at which a boat becomes a ship varies considerably. We define ship in the following ways: “a large seagoing vessel,” “a sailing vessel having a bowsprit and usually three masts each composed of a lower mast, a topmast, and a topgallant mast,” and “boat (especially one propelled by power or sail)”. Boat has a slightly narrower semantic range, including “a small vessel for travel on water,” and “ship.”

Usage writers appear to have been warning people about these words since the late 19th century; boat appears on James Gordon Bennett’s “Don’t List” in the New York Herald, with instruction to avoid “except in describing a small craft propelled by oars.” […]

Despite the fact that we’ve been receiving admonitions about boat and ship for over a century now, many people cheerfully insist on using boat for waterborne vessels of any size. However, few, if any, use ship to refer to small crafts. If you find that you are unable to remember the which is the larger between ship and boat it may help to sing the children’s song Row Your Boat (“row, row, row your ship” sounds decidedly odd — small oared crafts are almost always referred to as boats). No matter how many aphorisms we come up with, it seems unlikely that we are going to get much more specific than ‘ships are bigger than boats.’

Considering that our language has hundreds of words for different kinds of things that float on the water it is somewhat odd that we should focus exclusively on the difference between only these two. Should you find yourself beset by an angry sailor who calls you out for using boat when you should have used ship you may turn and ask if they know the difference between a xebec and an umiak, a corvette and a wherry, or an argosy and a garvey (the first ones are all ships and the second ones all boats).

I always enjoy finding examples of such common but hard-to-define words.

The Freedom to Choose.

A couple of years ago an unknown LH reader gave me Alison K. Smith’s For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia for my birthday (thank you, unknown reader!), and I’m finally getting around to reading it. Smith spent years digging through archives, both central and provincial, finding as many documents as she could relating to the difficult concept of сословие [soslovie], or “social estate,” in the Russian Empire; she used them to create this groundbreaking study, which is of necessity sometimes dry (she describes a lot of decisions about local cases) but winds up giving you as clear a picture as is possible. I thought I’d quote a passage from chapter 3 (pp. 86, 88) that explains that what on the face of it seems a good thing, the freedom to choose your estate, was in practice something very different:

In 1783, Catherine released a ukase in which she “presented to free people the freedom to choose a way of life.” The idea was a simple one: the recent census had shown that there were unregistered, “free” (vol’nye) people: former churchmen, freed serfs, and various others. Now, Catherine was telling them they could not remain free, that they should instead choose a way of life (izbrat’ rod zhizni)— whichever one “they themselves decide is best for the common good and their own well-being.” She also distinguished between different kinds of “unfreedom.” Drawing on the 1775 Manifesto, in which she had stated that freed serfs could not re-enserf themselves, all “free” people were now to choose any way of life “other than serfdom.”

The phrase “choose a way of life” became shorthand for the demand that individuals register in a (usually taxpaying) society. Laws over the next several years and decades used the phrase in relation to different social categories and with increasing insistence that making this choice was mandatory. […]

As the idea of mandatory registration developed, it led to growing tensions between local authorities and the central imperial state, and eventually to a confirmation of the idea that local societies had a certain, but limited, right to choose their own members. The basic problem was that, put bluntly, some of the people with the “right to choose a way of life” were far from the upstanding citizens a community might hope to attract. They were, for the most part, the unregistered—but in an increasingly registered society, that meant they had some peculiar, if not actively illegal, reason for being so. Furthermore, this problem affected towns, and particularly townsperson societies, most of all. Because anyone registering as a state peasant had to be guaranteed an allotment of land, even those in need of a new place could not automatically join such a society. As a result, the “choice” of a new way of life usually meant joining a townsperson society. Village societies might not have enough land, merchants had to have a certain amount of capital, and craftsmen needed a certain trade. Societies of townspeople got the leftovers.

It takes a lot of research, thought, and understanding of how the world works to produce such a summary. The word сословие itself is from Church Slavic съсловие, a calque of Greek σύλλογος (съ ‘with’ = συν-, слово ‘word’ = λόγος).

Preserving Welsh, Hawaiian, and Cantonese.

James Griffiths writes for CNN about efforts to preserve the languages listed in the post title; he includes a grim description of how Welsh was originally suppressed:

“The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales, and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people.” So concluded an 1847 report prepared for the UK government in the wake of widespread social unrest in Wales which much of the English press blamed on the “lack of education of the Welsh people.” “It is not easy to overestimate its evil effects,” the report said of the country’s native language, adding “there is no Welsh literature worthy of the name.”

In the wake of the report, Welsh Nots, planks of heavy wood that were hung around students’ necks if they were caught speaking Welsh in school, became a common sight across the country. As one teacher wrote in his school’s log book in 1870: “Endeavored to compel the children to converse in English by means of a piece of wood. Offenders to be shut in after school hours.”

These attitudes, along with increased immigration to England, helped lead to a staggering drop in the use of Welsh. By the time Plaid Cymru — the Party of Wales — was founded in 1925, the number of Welsh speakers had fallen to 37% of the population and appeared headed into terminal decline.

Welsh, of course, has done much better since, and similar efforts are working for Hawaiian; the piece ends with the current difficulties of Cantonese:

“What is happening with the renaissance of Welsh is the polar opposite of Cantonese,” said Marco Kwan, editor of, a website dedicated to documenting how the city’s language is used in daily life. “To preserve or promote or kill a language is largely dependent on educational policy.”

While he says many defenders of the language overstate the risk it faces, Kwan is wary of a “top-down aversion to Cantonese.” He says this is largely down to city officials and schools seeking to curry favor with the Chinese government by promoting Mandarin teaching in its stead.

On the other side of the debate, he pointed to a “worrying tendency to frame Cantonese as an integral part of the separatist movement, or a revolutionary element, which will make it harder to garner funding and be all the more detrimental to its development.”

My favorite part of the piece is the audio clips of each language, accompanied by written texts where the parts being spoken light up in red — a very nice feature which should be used more often. Thanks, Kobi!

Learning From Language Apps.

Eric Ravenscraft writes for the NY Times about his experiences with the language-learning apps Duolingo (“offers a skill tree of lessons that use listening exercises, flashcards, and multiple choice questions to drill you” as well as community features), Memrise (similar, but “also offers a feature called Learn With Locals, which pairs words with videos of native speakers”), and Babbel (“uses conversational examples to demonstrate how to use new words or phrases when speaking with another person” and “offers a speech recognition feature”). Some excerpts:

For languages that have a different writing system, like Japanese, Russian, or Korean, language apps can be an excellent way to learn. Duolingo and Memrise both use a combination of flash card and simple matching exercises to train you to recognize symbols in a new writing system, while Babbel goes an extra step further with in-lesson explanations for how new symbols or sounds work. […]

These apps are also better at teaching basic conversational phrases that are useful when you’re traveling. When you visit a city in a foreign country, it’s helpful to learn a few phrases like “Where is the bathroom?” or “How much does it cost?” Using a phrase book to memorize these phrases in another language is a quick and dirty way to get the job done, but that’s not really “learning” the phrases, it’s just memorizing them.

For example, consider the Italian phrase “Dov’è il bagno?” This phrase means “Where is the bathroom?” However, without speaking Italian, can you tell which part of that sentence is “bathroom?” Could you adapt the sentence to say “Where is the door?” or “Where is the hotel?” Language apps don’t just teach you whole sentences. Instead, they break down component parts of a sentence and teach you a few different variations so you understand what you’re saying and can adjust what you’re saying based on your situation. […]

For as useful as learning a new writing system or understanding basic phrases can be, it’s only a small part of fluency in a language. What counts as “fluent” is a tough concept to describe, but the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (or CEFR) is a widely-accepted standard for approximating fluency. [A = Basic, B = Independent, C = Proficient; each has two levels.] If it’s not already obvious, language apps simply can’t get someone to level C2 — or anywhere close — on their own. There simply aren’t lessons to teach you, for example, how to have a complex conversation about banking regulations or astrophysics or whatever your field of expertise. It also means that if you stick solely to the lesson plans in each app, you won’t communicate with another person. By definition, these two limitations would rule out reaching even level B2. […]

Most importantly, though, language apps are not other humans. It sounds like an obvious observation, but the entire point of learning a language is to communicate with other people. You can learn as many words or sentences as you want, but until you’re able to have a conversation with another person, you’ll never be fluent. Or, according to the CEFR model, you won’t even be halfway there.

A useful rundown; thanks, Eric!

A Whole Language.

I’m reading Dostoevsky’s Дневник писателя [A Writer’s Diary] with great pleasure — it’s what made him famous in the 1870s to a wider public than read his novels, and I can see why: it’s written in a lively, confiding style very different from the formality common to public pronouncements at the time, which strove rather to impress than to attract, and of course it’s always enticing to feel you’re getting an inside look at the life and thoughts of a famous person. I’ve just finished April 1876 and am already dreading the onslaught of mad apocalyptic prophecy (laced with copious outbursts of anti-Semitism) that’s going to come with the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War. But I’m going to go back to 1873 and quote a passage from the second section of Маленькие картинки [Little pictures] in that year’s Diary, translated by Kenneth Lantz (for the Russian, search that link for “сквернословят вслух” — the passage goes from there to the end of the section); he’s discussing workingmen who get drunk on holidays and stagger in groups around Petersburg on holidays:

They curse out loud despite the crowds of women and children they pass; and this not from rudeness but just because a drunken man can have no other language than a foul one. And this really is a language, a whole language—as I recently became convinced; it is the language most convenient, original, and best suited for one who is drunk or even tipsy, so that it absolutely had to come into being; and if it did not exist—il faudrait l’inventer. I’m quite serious here. Just consider. As we know, the first thing that happens to a drunken person is that his tongue becomes tied and moves sluggishly; however, the flow of thoughts and sensations of a drunken man—or at least of anyone who is not as drunk as a cobbler—increases by almost ten. And therefore there is a natural need to find the sort of language that can satisfy both these, mutually contradictory, states. Ages and ages ago this language was found and accepted all over Russia. Purely and simply, it is one noun not found in the dictionary, so that the entire language consists of but one word that can be pronounced with remarkable ease. One Sunday, quite late in the evening, I happened to be walking some fifteen paces away from a group of six drunken tradesmen; suddenly I realized that it was possible to express all thoughts, sensations, and even entire, profound propositions using only this one noun which, besides, has very few syllables. One of the lads first pronounces this noun sharply and forcefully to express his scornful dismissal of something they had been discussing earlier. Another replies by repeating this same noun, but now in quite a different tone and sense—specifically, in the sense that he thoroughly doubts the expediency of the first lad’s denial. A third one becomes indignant at what the first has said; sharply and excitedly, he gets into the discussion, shouting out this same noun, but now in the sense of disparagement and abuse. The second fellow again interrupts, angry at the third, who’s offended him, and stops him as if to say: “Why do you have to stick your oar in, chum? We’ve been having quite a discussion here; what d’you mean by getting on to our Filka!” And this whole notion he expressed by using this same forbidden word, this same monosyllabic name of a certain object, and raised his hand to take the third fellow by the shoulder. But then, suddenly, the fourth lad, the youngest of the group, who had kept silent to this point but who probably had found the solution to the original problem that had caused the dispute, raised his arm and shouted. . . . “Eureka!” you might think. “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” No, it wasn’t eureka, and he hadn’t got it. He only went on repeating this same noun, not found in the dictionary; just one word, only a single word, but with delight, with a scream of rapture, and, it seems, a little too exuberantly, because the sixth, a morose fellow and the eldest of them, didn’t like the sound of it and at once put a stop to the youngster’s delight by turning to him and repeating in a gloomy, didactic bass . . . that same noun which isn’t mentioned in the presence of ladies and which clearly and accurately signified: “What’re you bawling about?” And so, without having said anything else at all, they repeated this same little word of theirs six times in succession and understood one another completely. This is a fact that I witnessed myself. “Have mercy!” I shouted at them suddenly, without knowing why (I was in the middle of a crowd of people). “You’ve not walked more than ten paces and you’ve used (and I used the word) six times! That’s disgraceful! Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves?”

They all stared at me as people stare at something utterly unexpected and fell silent for a moment; I thought they would begin abusing me, but they didn’t. Only the youngest, after walking some ten paces more, suddenly turned to me and shouted as he walked, “So why’d you have to say it one more time when you’ve already heard it six times from us?”

A burst of laughter rang out and the group went on, paying no more attention to me.

I was amused by this early instance of the meme “you can express anything by using the same curse word in different intonations,” familiar in English for fuck; my question is, what is the Russian monosyllable in question? The one I’m familiar with that is used on its own is блядь [blyad’] (literally ‘whore’; see this 2004 LH post), but I suspect that’s a more modern usage; of course the Worst Curse Word in Russian is хуй [khuy] ‘cock,’ but I was not aware that it could be used by itself in the way described, though I know zillions of short phrases using it (хуй тебе or хуй там ‘fuck no’; вот-те хуй ‘are you shitting me?!’; не́ хуй ‘no fucking way [are you/we going to do that]’; etc., etc.). I’m hoping my Russophone readers can enlighten me.

Subtitling Is a Craft.

Back in 2010 I said “Movie subtitles have been a perennial topic of discussion here at LH (e.g., 1, 2, 3)”; it’s been a while since the subject has come up, so it’s with pleasure that I present Anne Billson’s piece for the Guardian (which, I was glad to read recently, has actually turned a profit for the first time in its history):

The perfect subtitle is one you don’t notice. Occasionally, you might thrill to Anthony Burgess’s English subtitles in alexandrine form for Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), or marvel at the bravura way Timur Bekmambetov threads animated subtitles into Night Watch (2004), or chuckle at the gaffes on old Hong Kong movies (“I have captured you by the short rabbits”). But mostly you just speed-read and move on.

This year, however, subtitles have been attracting more attention than usual. In January, Alfonso Cuarón condemned Netflix’s decision to add Castilian-Spanish subs to his film Roma as “parochial, ignorant and offensive to Spaniards”, who presumably couldn’t be trusted to understand the Mexican accent. Two days later, the Castilian subtitles were removed.

But criticism of Roma’s subtitles didn’t stop there. In February, the ATAA (Association des Traducteurs/Adaptateurs de l’Audiovisuel) pointed out that the film’s French subtitles were full of grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and mistranslations. The ATAA’s chairperson, Ian Burley, who has been subtitling French, Belgian and Italian movies for more than 30 years, also took a look at Roma’s English subtitles, and found them riddled with stylistic inconsistencies, sloppy synchronisation and clumsy line breaks or punctuation, all of which are liable to distract or discombobulate the viewer. And in the riot scene, a woman’s desperate exhortation of “Vamos!” (“Come on!”) to a dying man whose head she is cradling is clumsily translated as “Let’s go!” – as though she thinks he is dawdling.

Concerned not just by the problems with Roma, well publicised because of the Oscar-winning film’s high profile, but by a more general decline in subtitling standards, AVTE (AudioVisual Translators Europe) is collaborating with its member associations (including the British Subtitlers’ Association, Subtle) in a call for film-makers to cooperate more closely with professional subtitlers, reminding them that subtitling is a craft – an art, even – that ought not to be left to amateurs or automatic translation software.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff about the history and technology involved, as well as things I wouldn’t have thought of (“A knowledge of the plot is essential; when space is tight, you can’t cut dialogue about a gun if someone is going to be firing it in the third act”). And I highly recommend Roma, whatever subtitles it’s stuck with. Thanks, Trevor!