Statenbijbel in Siraya.

Christopher Joby at Neerlandistiek reports on a recently discovered translation from Dutch to Siraya, formerly spoken in the southwest of Taiwan:

It’s not often in one’s career that one comes across a book or manuscript that has lain ‘hidden’ for several hundred years, but by chance this happened to me recently. In Amsterdam in 1661, the Dutch missionary Daniël Gravius published a volume comprising his translations of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. John in the Formosan language, Siraya, a member of the broader Austronesian family of languages. Until recently, it was thought that only the translation of the Gospel of St. Matthew had survived. However, I recently identified a copy of the 1661 publication which contains both Gospel translations. The Gospel of St. John differs from that of St. Matthew in several respects and will therefore allow scholars in this field to increase their knowledge of this language, which became extinct in the nineteenth century. Hopefully, it will also add to our knowledge of the history of Austronesian or Formosan languages in Taiwan and Austronesian languages more generally.

The translation is based on the Dutch States Bible (Statenbijbel), first published in 1637. This includes several Latin and Greek words, which have been carried over into Siraya. Gravius’s publication consists of 70 folios of Dutch and Siraya parallel texts. It is a good example of the Bible translations that Dutch missionaries made in the seventeenth century into languages in East Asia and also illustrates how they mastered new languages such as Siraya in order to translate the Bible and other Christian literature into these languages. It is also a good example of the role that serendipity plays in scholarship!

There’s a nice image at the link; I love stories like that. (Via a Facebook post by bulbul.)

Neither S Nor S.

Barbara Partee has a Log post that so baffled me I have to repost the topic here. It begins:

Today in Seth Cable’s seminar on Montague’s Universal grammar, he gave out a problem set that included the task of adding “Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes” to the little fragment of English that had been developed. And in the discussion of the problem set, it turned out that I was the only one in the class who seemed to have any doubts about whether the sentence “Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes” was grammatical. My own intuition was that it had to be “Neither does Mitt smoke nor does Barack smoke”, though that sounded a little funny too.

My first reaction (since it’s not April 1) was that this is the kind of morass people get into when they spend too much time theorizing about constructed sentences; I couldn’t imagine that any native English speaker, uncontaminated by a linguistics PhD, could possibly think “Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes” was an acceptable English sentence, and “Neither does Mitt smoke nor does Barack smoke” sounds more than just “a little funny,” it sounds like a construction that hasn’t been in use since the 16th century. But reading the comment thread, it seemed that some people disagree, and other examples (just as bad from my point of view) were proposed — e.g., Suzanne Valkemirer said, “If the sentence read ‘Neither does Mitt smoke nor does Barack drink,’ you would presumably find nothing odd about it.” Nothing odd?! I’m not sure whether I’ve fallen irrevocably out of touch with English or these people are all existing in an alternate linguistic universe, so I thought I’d turn to the Varied Reader and as: does “Neither Mitt smokes nor Barack smokes” work for you? What about the other proposed sentences? (N.b.: If you’re confused by my post title, S is a linguistic abbreviation for “sentence.”)

Qing Imperial Multilingualism.

Alexander Golikov has what looks like an interesting paper at Academia: Translating through the Cultural Barriers: the Qing Imperial Multilingualism. Here’s the abstract:

The Qing Empire, from its establishment in the Manchu homeland, followed with the con-quest of Ming China, and dramatic expansion towards Inner Asia, became one of the largest imperial states in the history of China. By 1800s it encompassed proper China, Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet, and Eastern Turkistan. Bringing such different (ethnically, culturally and historically) regions under the sole Son of Heaven inevitably led to development of various political practices to deal with the challenge of complexity.

The Qing dynasty practiced various administrative modes (the civil bureaucracy, the Eight banners, Jasagh, Beg) to govern separate categories of the populace. Also important was building the all-encompassing concept of Emperorship, which was able to address simultaneously to the distinct political cultures of, e.g. post-imperial Mongolian törö/ulus, Tibetan concept of mchod-yon or the Turkic-Muslim combination of the Islamic, post-Qarahanid, and Chinggisid elements.

Another manifestation of the Qing multicultural approach may be found in the multilingual glossaries, composed during the last half of the 1700s, notably the Manchu-Han-Mongol-Tibetan-Turki Pentaglot or six-lingual Description of the Western Region or the Glossary of the Six Boards.

Particularly interesting is the variety of translation of the institutional (e.g. the Court of the Outer Dependencies), ethnic (Korean, Russian, Muslim, etc.) and geographical (especially in contemporary Xinjiang) names. Occasionally they reflect unique historical background, in other situations the translation tend to emphasize different cultural perceptions (from ummah-al-islamiya to sedentary/nomadic dichotomy). We may find the concepts which (through translation) were imposed on the conquered population or, alternatively, imported from one linguistic milieu to another.

Broadening the approach, we may encounter similar phenomena in the cultural practices of both con-temporary world (e.g. in the so-called Gunpowder Empires, that are the Ottoman Turkey, Safavid-Qajar Iran and Mughal India) and in modernity. For example the non-Han translation of the Chinese political vocabulary manifests the careful manipulation of the terms and concepts.

It’s full of interesting bits, like:

The very translation of the title of Emperor was reflecting different cultural norms. The Manchu version is identical to Chinese, while Mongol and Tibetan are representing indigenous concepts of power. Interestingly, the Turki translation is identical to the Mongol. The Manchus faced here the transition from Chinggisid legitimacy to one based on the descent from the Prophet Muḥammad. The fierce opponents of the Qing rule were the kʰwājagān (sing. kʰwāja), leaders of Sufi Brethren and seyid (the descendants of the Prophet). Since the Manchus were not Muslim, they could only claim political authority on the basis that they be-longed to the clan of Chinggis […].

Thanks, Bathrobe!

The ⋮ Key.

Keith Hou­s­ton writes the blog Shady Char­ac­ters, about “the stor­ies be­hind dif­fer­ent marks of punc­tu­ation” (I welcomed it back in 2011), and he’s also published a book on the topic (LH). A few years ago he did a post on an obscure and fascinating symbol:

Com­puters are not type­writers: this is evid­ent. Even so, it’s easy to for­get that Chris­topher Latham Sholes’ mech­an­ical mar­vel was the well­spring of the QWERTY, QWERTZ, AZERTY and sim­ilar key­boards we use to in­ter­act with our laptops, tab­lets and smart­phones. Sholes and his in­ven­tion play sup­port­ing roles in the Shady Char­ac­ters book, too: the type­writer helped pop­ular­ise the @-sym­bol even as it sav­aged the em and en dashes, but there was al­ways one sym­bol on Sholes’ em­bryonic QWERTY key­board that I never quite got to grips with. Take a look at the left­most key on the third row of Sholes’ key­board, as shown in his 1878 pat­ent for “Im­prove­ment in type-writ­ing ma­chines”. What on earth is that? Or rather, what on earth is this: ‘⋮’?

He did some investigation which led to Morse code; Thomas A. Fine of Sentence Spacing (which promotes the argument “that wide spacing is a perfectly valid style choice, and at most that two spaces are the more functional logical choice for our modern world,” to which I say “amen”) was inspired to carry out his own in­vest­ig­a­tion into the “ver­tical el­lip­sis,” which turned up an instance of the mark being used as a line separator:

This leads me to the following working theory. Sholes, or one of his testers, wanted a vertical bar character on the typewriter for situations like this one, with a bibliography. It could be useful for borders and other things too. But the typography of that first typewriter was stone simple. It was a sans serif font, and the letter “I” was already a vertical bar. Given that Sholes doubled up “1” and “I”, there’s no point in adding a relatively obscure symbol that was identical. To be useful it would have to look different than an “I”. So Sholes simply used an existing alternate form. Later, when it turned out to be less useful, it was changed to a slash which carried the same function, but could also be used to write fractions, and the percent sign, and to double up with “c” to make “¢”, as well as a number of abbreviations common in that era that used a slash.

Hou­s­ton responded in Miscellany № 71 — ‘⋮’ redux, singling out Fine’s image of a line of typing produced by Mark Twain’s daugh­ter Susie:

As a ex-com­pos­itor, Twain would have been quite at home with un­com­mon marks such as the pil­crow (¶), double dag­ger (‡) and man­icule (☞) — as per the ed­it­ors of his col­lec­ted let­ters, he used these and other marks in his cor­res­pond­ence — but the ‘⋮’ never ap­peared again. Even if he knew what the mark meant, evid­ently, he never saw the need to use it. So near, and yet so far! Who would have been bet­ter than Mark Twain to en­lighten us as to the mean­ing of the ‘⋮’?

It’s a lot of fun, and I recommend reading the whole sequence. And as lagniappe, I’ll link to a new Log post by Victor Mair that begins:

Note from June Teufel Dreyer: “Driving around Coconut Grove [Miami neighborhood] to admire old houses on back streets, [daughter] Elizabeth [Dreyer Geay] and I saw one with a plaque on the perimeter wall that read ‘Maison d’Etre'”

(You can see a couple of images at the link.) I am bemused to report I had to read the whole post to get the pun; somehow my mind wasn’t connecting to the obvious phrase.


Simone Kotva’s Sealanguage: Field Notes from the Anthropocene is a look at a particular kind of language use; here’s the abstract:

In the Faroe Islands, long-standing but now rapidly declining practices of tabooing have governed the language of fishermen at sea. Based on fieldwork that combines ethnography with intellectual history, this article explores the continuity of this allegedly superstitious practice within the broad framework of Western secularity. In the 1990s, local practices of naming found expression at a national level with the compilation of the first ornithological handbook written entirely in Faroese. The example of this field guide, in which local names were made to conform to scientific nomenclature, is used to interrogate tensions between orality and literacy. Contrary to the tradition that would oppose folk-taxonomy to classical systematics, it is shown that among field observers both practices of naming are used simultaneously, and, frequently, non-competitively. Through these and other examples it is argued that what is at stake in practices of naming is a habit of paying attention to the environment, premised not on lexical expertise or ideas of knowledge but on a singular hedonism of taking pleasure in the thing named. It is the cultivation of this habit that is proposed as the critical foundation and future purpose of any planetary consciousness.

And here’s part of the discussion of the term súlukongur, so you can see what it’s like:

In the case of sealanguage, satisfaction is achieved when a familiar bird, such as the fulmar or the raven, is made strange by the gift of a new name. One famous example, recorded by Lockwood and still remembered in the Islands, was the incident of a vagrant female black-browed albatross known as the “gannet king” or súlukongur. This bird was seen flying with the gannets of Mykineshólmur every summer from 1860 until shot by a vandal in 1864; during this time it was known as the “gannet king”.

Lockwood was of the opinion that tabooing emerged from a superstitious belief in the direct link between a name and the thing denominated, but súlukongur—being the name not of a bird but of a bird in a configuration of other birds—is a good example of what in classical semiotics is known as indirect or ordinary signification. In semiotic terms, what makes the name súlukongur similar to the female black-browed albatross is not a bird-shaped thought in the head of the viewer, but an experience (or “affection”, to use the classical term) that coincides with the sighting of the bird. The significance of this gloss becomes evident in practical terms when we consider that súlukongur could not signify the albatross directly, because the name would not be generally applicable to all albatrosses. Nor does the name signify directly the particular female albatross that accompanied the gannets between 1860-1864, since in order to earn its name this bird depended on a context of gannets and would not have been called súlukongur if sighted when flying solo. This is because súlukongur is not a proper name, but, like many words in sealanguage, a euphemism or “kenning”, and doubles as a riddle, the full form of which would be: who is the king of the gannets? Like many riddles in Old Norse and Old English súlukongur is constructed around a known answer. In the case of the súlukongur it would be impossible to solve the riddle without knowing beforehand about the event in question. This situation to which the name refers is what enables it signify indirectly, rather than directly, to the bird.

Salos and Holy Folly.

I just had occasion to correct the Wikipedia article on Simeon the Holy Fool, which had said “for ancient Greek Σάλος, stir wikt:σάλος).” I changed it to “Greek: Συμεών (ο δια τον Χριστόν) Σαλός,” and in my explanation of the change wrote “note that σαλός ‘(holy) fool’ is a different word, with a different accent, from σάλος ‘rolling motion’.” I thought I’d bring this interesting word to a wider audience by quoting the passage on it from Derek Krueger’s Symeon the Holy Fool (University of California Press, 1996):

Extreme caution is also warranted with regard to the term salos (σαλός), usually used to describe holy folly in both the modern scholarly literature and the Orthodox churches. The word salos, translated usually as “fool,” is of uncertain origin. It is not to be confused with the Greek word σάλος, “tossed” or “agitated.” As Grosdidier de Matons has observed, salos appears to have had a principally colloquial usage at first. It first appears in written sources in the early fifth century CE in Palladius’s Lausiac History 34, the well-known story of the nun in a monastery in Tabennisi who feigned madness (μώρια) and demonic possession. The nuns in the monastery tell the narrator that the woman is σαλή, a term which Palladius glosses after its first usage, presumably because the word was unfamiliar to his audience, explaining that this is the word they use “to describe those women who are afflicted.” Although we do find the theme of sanctity concealed by madness in this story, nothing suggests that the term salos has been connected with her practice as a technical term.

In four anecdotes in the alphabetical collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum, redacted in the sixth century, the word is either used sincerely to describe someone who appears crazy (and may well be) or as an insult. The term has a slang quality to it, and a recent English translator of the Apophthegmata has rendered it variously “mad,” “distraught,” “silly,” and “fool.” Here too the word clearly has no technical meaning suggesting the pretense of insanity as a form of ascetic practice. The word occurs with a notably abusive sense in a recently published letter from Oxyrhynchus dated to the late fifth century. While discussing business matters connected with a mill at Orthoniu the author of the letter refers to a third party as “that imbecile [σαλός] Horus.”

[Read more…]

Translating The Three-Body Problem.

The WIRED Book Club asks Is Three-Body Problem’s Translation Better Than the Original? (a somewhat misleading title for an interview with the translator, Ken Liu):

Were there any big changes you made to the translation of The Three-Body Problem?
The first book, as originally published in Chinese, actually comes in a different order. It starts out with the police and army officers asking Professor Wang to join them at the Battle Command Center. All the Cultural Revolution episodes happen as flashbacks. That gave the original Three-Body Problem a very Japanese thriller/detective story kind of feel. But Liu Cixin had always intended for the story to actually start with the Cultural Revolution chapters. He had switched the order only because of concern about whether or not that content would be sensitive. We decided to restore the chapter order, and I like the new structure a lot more. The Cultural Revolution parts are no longer just kind of throwaway flashback exclamations. They are actually the foundation of the story.

It certainly gives American readers footing for the rest of the story …
That’s not how Chinese fans saw it! When I restored the chapter order, a lot of Chinese fans thought that was a mistake. They all thought that starting with the Cultural Revolution would bore American readers.

Was that an issue you struggled with generally?
There’s inherent cultural imbalance whenever you’re translating from Chinese to English. Educated Chinese readers are expected not only to know about all the Chinese references—history, language, culture, all this stuff—but to be well-versed in Western references as well. A Chinese reader can decode an American work with far greater facility than an American reader can decode a Chinese work, on average.

Seems like a problem for the sections about the Cultural Revolution.
Most Americans have very little understanding of what happened—and if they do have some understanding, what they have is very fragmented and biased and incomplete. To really understand Ye’s motivation, you have to know quite a bit about what the Cultural Revolution is and what it meant to people who went through it.

How did you deal with that?
There is a general dislike among American publishing for footnotes in translation. I think the theory is that somehow footnotes interrupt the flow and we don’t want to make the reader feel like they don’t know something. So rather than try to explain, we just prefer not to, or try to cut out the stuff that’s confusing. I refused to do that. I wanted to give readers enough information so that they could then go to Wikipedia or Google it.

I enjoyed the trilogy a great deal (especially the first volume), and I think restoring the original order works well — although I’m an unusual American in that I already knew a great deal about the Cultural Revolution, and an unusual fiction reader in that I like footnotes.

Raising the Bridge.

LH commenter Zhoen writes:

There is a railroad bridge in North Carolina that has eaten a number of trucks and vans. So they are raising it. The video is interesting. But the workman in it has an accent I cannot place. Or rather, it seems to come from a dozen places at once.

Any thoughts? (I have to agree with one of the YouTube commenters that the raising is unlikely to solve the problem.)


LH commenter Jongseong has made a post that is right up my alley, so I’m sharing it:

Ricardo Mbarkho, born in Beirut in 1974, is a Lebanese visual artist working in digital images and video whose unusual name immediately leapt to the eye. […] [The surname Mbarkho] doesn’t look like an Arabic name, even considering the fact that unlike Modern Standard Arabic, Levantine Arabic (the most common everyday language in Lebanon) allows initial consonant clusters.

I guessed that Mbarkho might be Aramaic in origin, like that of many place names in the Levant, and specifically its classical form Syriac. […] Mbarkho seems to come from ܡܒ݂ܰܪܟ݂ܳܐ mḇarḵā, which means “blessed” in Syriac (see this entry). You can find instances of this word being written “mbarkho” in ad hoc romanizations of Syriac prayers. Originally, this would have simply been written ܡܒܪܟܐ mbrkʾ, as a string of the letters mīm ܡ, bēṯ ܒ, rēš ܪ, kāp̄ ܟ, and ʾālap̄ ܐ written from right to left (the isolated forms of the letters can look different from the connecting forms). This would be written 𐡌𐡁𐡓𐡊𐡀 in the older Imperial Aramaic alphabet and מברכא in the Hebrew alphabet, which was used to write the Aramaic portions of the Hebrew Bible. The letter ʾālap̄ originally represented the glottal stop ʾ /ʔ/, but also came to represent the vowel ā in a practice called mater lectionis (from Latin “mother of reading”) just as in the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets. […]

Based on the available descriptions of Western Syriac, mḇarḵā would be pronounced something like [mvarxo]. One may therefore expect a romanization like “mvarkho”. Then why do we see “mbarkho”? It may be due to a pronunciation influenced by the vernacular, be it Neo-Aramaic or Arabic. Not all the Syriac lenitions are maintained or reproduced in the different languages and dialects of Neo-Aramaic, and Syriac actually merges with w as [ɥ~w~ʋ] in many varieties rather than being pronounced [v]. And even those varieties that split the original b might not have the soft version everywhere that Syriac has it, maintaining a hard b after m in words similar to the Syriac mḇarḵā.

However, the simplest explanation here may be that Arabic, the predominant vernacular language in Lebanon, does not have [v] as part of its sound inventory except as a marginal phoneme in recent loanwords. […] In articles in Arabic where he is mentioned, one can even see Mbarkho written as مبارك Mubārak, identical to the cognate Arabic name, perhaps in recognition that it is equivalent to the Syriac Mḇarḵā.

More details (and a video) at the link; I love this sort of thing!

Some Links.

Good links have been piling up, so here are several:

1) Russian Dinosaur is back, with Nothing but spiders: Bobok in the bathhouse, a rich post about stories set in graveyards, from which I learned about Vladimir Sharov’s father “Aleksandr Sharov, born Asher Israelievich Nurenberg (1909-1984), a bibulous but none the less brilliant writer and journalist”; his novel The Death and Resurrection of A.M. Butov (1984) “is a serious study of the consequences of dying, but not going away. Effectively extinct, but still conscious, Butov revisits his typical Soviet life – and its moral and emotional consequences.”

2) Speaking of Sharov fils, Caryl Emerson has a long and fascinating LARB essay, “Our Own Madness, Our Own Absurd” (Andrei Platonov, Vladimir Sharov, and George Bernard Shaw), that discusses Platonov’s plays and Sharov’s essays about Platonov. The longest section is devoted to Fourteen Little Red Huts (1933), a play about the appalling consequences of collectivization; one of its characters is Johann-Friedrich Bos, “world-renowned scholar, chairman of the League of Nations Commission for the Resolution of the Riddle of the World Economy, one hundred and one years old,” who is in part based on G.B. Shaw, who “had celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday in the Soviet Union in 1931 and had asserted afterward that the world’s only hope lay in the success of Stalin’s Five-Year Plan.” Here’s a passage of linguistic interest:

Shaw-Bos comes on the scene in Moscow already knowing Russian (“Of course I know Russian! What don’t I know? I no longer remember how much I know…”) When he arrives with Futilla [“Futilla” is the translators’ suggestive rendering of the unusual female first name Suenita, which recalls the Biblical phrase “vanity of vanities” (“sueta suet” in Old Church Slavonic and modern Russian)] at the desolate pastoral kolkhoz, he takes up the language of the new society from the inside. The kolkhoz is affectionate and supportive of his seniority. He becomes a mascot. Futilla is grateful and allows herself to be embraced. At her request, Bos learns bookkeeping so he can help with the registration of workdays; in her absence, he even does a stint of managing himself. In his transition to Soviet worker and bureaucrat, he passes through a lyrical phase — lamenting to Futilla that nature is indifferent, that “the wind doesn’t feel boredom, the sea doesn’t call anyone anywhere,” that all these hopes of progress and the harnessing of nature are all fraud, “worldwide, historically organized fraud.” But obliged to deal with written records and file reports, Bos the dreamily disillusioned poet adapts to the language of the present.

By the beginning of Act III, Bos can speak like a native. He is now on a learning curve quite different from his burlesqued predecessor Stervetson in Hurdy-Gurdy. Futilla is away in Astrakhan, fetching the recovered babies. Before her departure, she delegated her power to Bos. His name has been Russified and furnished with a patronymic. He is doing his job, and with the right vocabulary. He asks Ksyusha whether she has overfulfilled her quota, and he accuses the elderly kolkhoz worker Filipp Vershkov of being a class enemy, liar, and saboteur. Both reply to these administrative pronouncements matter-of-factly, without dismay or panic.

3) Two Latin-related links from Michael Gilleland’s Laudator Temporis Acti: Genuine (on the disputed etymology of that word) and The Two Chief Pleasures of My Life, a passage from Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Roderick Random, of which this is a taste:

At our entrance, the landlord, who seemed to be a venerable old man, with long grey hair, rose from a table placed by a large fire in a very neat paved kitchen, and, with a cheerful countenance, accosted us in these words: ‘Salvete Pueri—ingredimini.’—I was not a little pleased to hear our host speak Latin, because I was in hope of recommending myself to him by my knowledge in that language; I therefore answered, without hesitation,—Dissolve frigus, ligna super foco—large reponens. I had no sooner pronounced these words, than the old gentleman, running toward me, shook me by the hand, crying, ‘—Fili mi dilectissime! unde venis!—a superis, ni fallor?

4) LH commenter Garrigus Carraig sent me an e-mail saying “I found a story which may interest you. A student defended her dissertation in Quechua, a first at 400+-year-old Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima.” He included links to a Guardian story by Dan Collyns (“Quechua is still spoken by 8 million people across the Andes, but Roxana Quispe Collantes hopes she can give it added value”), a Remezcla story by Yara Simón (“Her work was titled ‘Yawar Para, Kilku Warak’aq, Andrés Alencastre Gutiérrezpa harawin pachapi, Qosqomanta runasimipi harawi t’ikrachisqa, ch’ullanchasqa kayninpi,’ which focuses on transfiguration and uniqueness of Quechua poetry, particularly the works of Andrés Alencastre Gutiérrez”), and a three-hour video, Primera tesis sanmarquina sustentada en quechua (Quispe Collantes starts talking at 27:45; it’s fun to hear the Quechua). Thanks, Garrigus!

5) Anther commenter wrote me to say “Do you know about the British system of hill classification, as used by hill walkers? It gives me a headache. I figured you might like it.” Marilyns, HuMPs, Simms, and TuMPs; Munros, Murdos, Corbetts, and Grahams; Hewitts and Nuttalls; it’s a real trove. Thanks, Yoram!