How Do You Chew a Taste?

A couple of years ago — but just now in my belated reading of the NYRB — Lydia Davis wrote about the pleasures of translating (paywalled, I’m afraid). She begins as follows:

This past June, on a trip to France, I was taken by French friends for a wine-tasting in the small Burgundian town of Beaune, south of Dijon. During the wine-tasting, we were at one point instructed to mâchez le vin—I can’t remember now whether this was while we still held the wine in our mouths, or after we had swallowed or spat it out. Now, when this word was spoken, I became instantly alert, my translator-antennae going up: using the verb mâcher, “chew,” for something that you can’t actually chew was a problem I had spent several hours on during my translating of Madame Bovary. The word occurs in a passage near the beginning of the novel, when Charles Bovary, at least, is still happy in his marriage, and Emma is not yet obviously restless or unhappy. This passage very well illustrates Flaubert’s antiromanticism:

Et alors, sur la grande route qui étendait sans en finir son long ruban de poussière, par les chemins creux où les arbres se courbaient en berceaux, dans les sentiers dont les blés lui montaient jusqu’aux genoux, avec le soleil sur ses épaules et l’air du matin à ses narines, le coeur plein des félicités de la nuit, l’esprit tranquille, la chair contente, il s’en allait ruminant son bonheur, comme ceux qui mâchent encore, après dîner, le goût des truffes qu’ils digèrent.

This was how I translated it:

And then, on the road stretching out before him in an endless ribbon of dust, along sunken lanes over which the trees bent like an arbor, in paths where the wheat rose as high as his knees, with the sun on his shoulders and the morning air in his nostrils, his heart full of the joys of the night, his spirit at peace, his flesh content, he would ride along ruminating on his happiness, like a man continuing to chew, after dinner, the taste of the truffles he is digesting.

I like to reproduce the word order, and the order of ideas, of the original whenever possible.

So far so good, but she goes on to say that mâcher was a problem: “But how do you chew a taste?”

What I did not do, during the wine-tasting in Beaune — a cause for some lost sleep once I returned — was ask the professional who was assisting us, on our tour, just how he translates mâcher into English, for English-speaking visitors. Later, I discovered that the equivalent in the wine-tasting would is indeed “chew” — but would it have ever occurred to me to look to a wine buyers’ guide for help with my Flaubert translation?

To which I respond: why the hell not? I’m not sure if she’s saying she deliberately doesn’t consult specialist sources when she’s translating or it just slips her mind, but of someone who has said she doesn’t read the book she’s going to translate, she just starts from page one, I can believe anything.


Superlinguo, “a blog about language and linguistics by Lauren Gawne,” is obvious LH material; recently it’s featured Linguistics Jobs: Interview with a Freelance Editor, Writer and Trainer (“After 30 years in the finance sector, Howard Walwyn has returned to his love of language”) and Contexts of Use of a Rotated Palms Gesture among Syuba (Kagate) Speakers in Nepal:

A popular expression in Nepal is a fatalistically resigned ke garne? ‘what to do?’ The government office is closed, ke garne? The bus is running late, ke garne? When people say this, they also bring their palms up and rotate them inwards, with their thumb and index finger extended and the other fingers bunched in.

(There’s a gif illustrating it.) I look forward to investigating further; thanks, Bathrobe!

Autumnal Creases.

Mikhail Yeryomin (not the goalkeeper) is a very interesting poet; as the History of Russian Literature (see this post) says, “Eremin quickly settled into a writing pattern that has remained unchanged for decades: eight-line poems, almost always untitled, collected in volumes published every few years and entitled Poems […] Eremin collects obscure words with the zeal of a paleontologist assembling animal bones from disparate sites; the imagery of the poems is often biological, chemical, and especially botanical.” There’s a selection of his poems in the excellent anthology In The Grip of Strange Thoughts: Russian Poetry in a New Era (which seems to have given rise to a whole series of single-author collections), translated by the editor, J. Kates, and for one of them I found a different translation, by David MacFadyen (in World Literature Today 72.1 [Winter, 1998]), so I thought I’d provide the original (from 1957) and both translations so you can see just how divergent translations can be (there are only a half-dozen words in common, including “autumnal” and “creases”):

Боковитые зерна премудрости,
Изначальную форму пространства,
Всероссийскую святость и смутность
И болот журавлиную пряность
Отыскивать в осенней рукописи,
Где следы оставила слякоть,
Где листы, словно листья луковицы,
Слезы прячут в складках.

Perspicuity’s angular seedpods,
A primordial form of dimension,
All of Russia, its miscreants, credence,
And the cranes’ heady scent from the marshes:
To find this in autumnal manuscripts,
Where the slime deposited traces,
Where the pages, as cupolas’ onion-leaves,
Hide their teardrops in creases.
–tr. D. MacFadyen

Polyhedral kernels of wisdom,
Primordial form of space.
All-Russian holiness, hodgepodge
And the herony tang of swampland
To be searched out in autumnal writing,
Where the slush has left its traces,
Where leaves, like the skirts of an onion
Conceal tears in their creases.
–tr. J. Kates

The first word, the adjective боковитый, is so rare it gets less than 40 Google hits at the moment, and some of those hits use it as a proper noun; it’s clearly derived from the noun бок ‘side,’ but I have no idea if it has any specialized meaning or if it’s used ad hoc each time — at any rate, MacFadyen makes it “angular” and Kates “polyhedral.” And the translators are working from slightly different texts of the poem: in the penultimate line, one has платья, hence ‘skirts,’ and the other листья ‘leaves’ (the version I used above). Fun stuff, if you like analyzing translations (as I do: see this post from the first few months of LH, whose comment thread, alas, was peeled away at some point by Blogger).

Early Etymology.

It’s just a single-panel cartoon, but how could I not post it?

Interview with Josh Calvo.

Last year I posted about The Untranslated, one of the best blogs in existence; the latest post there is over 16,000 words long, and I promise you it’s well worth the read. It’s full title is “Interview with Josh Calvo: On S. Yizhar’s Days of Ziklag, Albert Suissa’s Aqud, Volter Kilpi’s Alastalon salissa, unjustly untranslated Hebrew and Arabic literary works, and on the present state of Anglophone literature”; Calvo is “a writer of fiction, translator from Hebrew and Arabic, obsessive reader and language-learner, shameless bibliophile addict, and PhD student in Comparative Literature at Princeton University.” I’ll provide a few paragraphs more or less at random and hope they whet your appetite enough to follow the link and read more:

Translating Swissa’s novel [Aqud (The Bound)] of course necessitates deeply attending to the stylistic and literary affinities he shares with other modernists, as it does knowing the historic context inside and out. But more important than either of these, for me at least, is the *essentially literary* demand that the translator make the text work as beautifully in English as it does in the original — and this might mean occasionally sticking strictly to the style and idiosyncrasy of the Hebrew, and occasionally doing the opposite, taking whatever literary license seems necessary in context. Ultimately this means that I cannot advocate for any all-encompassing “approach” or “theory” for my translation beyond what I (subjectively, I admit) deem to be its literary merits in Hebrew and my own ability (or lack thereof) to create similar literary merit from English. (I will also admit to being suspicious of such theories in any case, and I know I would be unable to commit to any of them from sentence to sentence.) I am reminded of what Swissa himself told me when I started working on the translation: “make your own Aqud,” he said, which I thought and still think is exactly right. […]

Here I am thinking of Uri Nissan Gnessin (1879-1913), who more or less invented a form of writing (we now call it “stream-of-consciousness”) in a “dead” language some years before his coreligionist Marcel Proust would do some of the same in a very alive language. Gnessin’s novellas are brilliant in all the ways we want literature to be, and unlike some of the other big names in pre-State literature, would in the right hands translate unstiffly if not beautifully: turn to the many well-rendered versions of Mr. Aforementioned Proust for an example (and for another example closer to Gnessin’s home: the symbolist-modernist novels of Andrey Bely or, earlier, Dostoyevsky). […]

[Read more…]

The French Are Not Excited.

Emily Monaco writes for BBC Travel about the kind of thing that normally makes me grind my teeth: the French don’t say “Je suis excité,” which is better translated ‘I am aroused,’ and(/therefore) they don’t get excited. But Monaco has lived in France for many years, her husband is French, and she backs up her thesis to some extent:

As opposed to other false friends – like ‘Je suis pleine’, which means not ‘I’m full’, as its literal translation suggests, but ‘I’m pregnant’, forcing Francophones to use periphrases like ‘J’ai assez mangé’ (‘I’ve eaten enough’) – not only is ‘Je suis excité’ not the appropriate way to convey excitement, but there seems to be no real way to express it at all.

“I usually say ‘Je suis heureuse’ [‘I’m happy’] or ‘J’ai hâte de’ [‘I’m looking forward to’],” one bilingual friend said. Neither quite captures the intensity of excitement, but it seems these are the best substitutes that French has to offer. […]

This is not, then, a mere question of translation, but rather a question of culture. Like other untranslatable terms like Japan’s shinrin-yoku (the relaxation gained from being around nature) or dadirri (deep, reflective listening) in aboriginal Australian, it seems as though the average French person doesn’t need to express excitement on the day to day.

For Julie Barlow, Canadian co-author of The Story of French and The Bonjour Effect, this is largely due to the implied enthusiasm in the word ‘excited’, something that’s not sought after in French culture. She notes that Francophone Canadians, culturally North American rather than French, find work-arounds such as ‘Ça m’enthousiasme’ (‘It enthuses me’).

“[The French] don’t appreciate in conversation a kind of positive, sunny exuberance that’s really typical of Americans and that we really value,” Barlow explained. “Verbally, ‘I’m so excited’ is sort of a smile in words. French people prefer to come across as kind of negative, by reflex. […]

Indeed, those who are unable to show the proper emotional detachment within French society can even be perceived as being somehow deranged, something that is exemplified by the pejorative labelling of former President Nicolas Sarkozy as ‘l’excité’, due to the zeal he shows in public appearances.

There’s a whole riff about history (“Authenticity has been important to the French since the Revolution”), and she quotes her husband thus:

“I used to judge Americans because I thought they were always too ecstatic, always having disproportionate reactions,” he told me years later, though now, he added, “I feel like I have two worlds in my head, one in French and one in English. I feel like the English world is a lot more fun than the French one.”

So my question to those of you who know French life and culture better than I do is: is this the usual nonsense, or is there something to it? (Thanks, Ariel!)

In Stir.

My wife (whose questions have been the source of many a post) asked “Why do we say ‘in stir’ for ‘in prison’?” I went to AHD and discovered this fascinating and unexpected etymology:

[Short for Romani stariben, stirapen : star, variant of astar, to seize, causative of ast, to remain, stop (probably akin to Prakrit atthaï, he sits, from earlier Middle Indic *āsthāti, he remains, from Sanskrit ātiṣṭhati , he stands by, remains on : ā-, near, to, at + tiṣṭati, sthā-, he stands; see sthā- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots) + Romani –ben, n. suff.]

(The Appendix entry is actually “stā- To stand; with derivatives meaning ‘place or thing that is standing.’ Oldest form *steh2‑, colored to *stah2‑, contracted to *stā‑.” I assume things have gone slightly out of whack between editions.) Can anyone with access to OED3 tell me whether it has the same etymology?

Also, a lovely example of the phrase in use, from the pen of the immortal Walt Kelly (as quoted by Ron Smith in this 14-year-old LH post):

“Oh, whence that wince,
My wench?” quoth I.
She sighed and said, “Oh Sir,
My papa ain’t been stirrin’
Since my mama’s been in stir.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang Now Free.

A couple of years ago I posted that Green’s Dictionary of Slang was online: “Headword search, definitions, and etymologies are free; advanced search and supporting quotations are available to individuals by subscription at £49/year (currently about US$60).” Now, unfortunately for Jonathon Green but fortunately for the rest of us, he has announced that for lack of institutional support, he has decided to put the whole thing online gratis:

My initial aim was to offer the dictionary in two formats: one would be free and permitted users to see A [the word, its compounds, phrases and derivatives, plus all pertinent senses] + B [an etymology] and C [a definition]. For those who were willing to pay a subscription there would also be D [the illustrative citations that show a term’s historical development]. An update, including both new terms of slang (whether from the past or present) and new citations (which meant that subject to research the much-desired ‘first recorded use’ of a given term would be continually shifted backwards) was to be added every three months. […]

Two years into the project, and having no intention to abandon my researches, I have decided that the dictionary in its entirety – headwords, etymologies, definitions and citations – will henceforth be made available for free. I am grateful to those who have subscribed, and for those who wish, I shall repay whatever sums are outstanding as of the relaunch. I would ask only for a little time, since the new system must first be up and running. Your subscription will continue as is until then. […]

In an ideal or perhaps older world, the work might have gained institutional backing, the usual means being a publisher. But I have come long since to accept that no publisher, even including the one who (reluctantly, as they made clear) put out the print edition in 2010, feels that the work is of value or worth. No matter; death will see me off, dismissal will not. I have no choice but to continue alone and in so doing, what truly matters is visibility.

So ego, of course, enters the picture: one does the work, one wishes it to be seen and used.

Here‘s the website; use it with pleasure and gratitude.


Emanuel Ax came up in conversation, and my wife asked me about his family name. Googling in English produced no results, but since he was born in (what’s now) Ukraine I thought of googling in Russian, and this page gave me the answer: it’s a variant of Yiddish oks ‘ox,’ and a translation of the Jewish rabbinical surname Shor (Schor, Schorr), the Hebrew word (שור‎) for bull or ox. If anyone with more patience wants to try to get this information onto Wikipedia, be my guest!

Enchanting Chaos.

Alexander Grin is a writer like no other; his most famous work is Алые паруса (Scarlet Sails), but he wrote scads of wonderful stories, and Geoff Cebula has translated a little chiller, Волшебное безобразие, as Enchanting Chaos. It begins:

This city used to be packed with people, each good for at least one extraordinarily strange story, if not several. Some of these people died long ago, yet when I pass through the cemetery my nose can tell the precise graves in which their former bodies rest after living through a trying stretch of bizarre experiences. I recall their names, how they looked, the way they used to cough or extract their cigarettes.

To this day, an old courier stands at the corner of Miscue-Miscreance and Herbivory, having destroyed his youth and the beautiful home life he shared with his beloved wife by taking it upon himself one day to procure a caged bird without pay. This task was given to him by a beautiful young woman dressed elegantly and aromatically. Though the courier was himself a heartbreaker, married only recently to a sweet but restless blonde, this young woman was of exceptional beauty. He felt stricken in the heart. This fiery-eyed beauty didn’t happen to have any money on hand. “Listen here,” said the courier. “I’m just an ordinary guy, miss, but allow me do you this service for free.”

“Thank you,” she answered simply, with a smile—and her smile imbued the courier’s flustered soul with an incendiary gleam of joyful excitement.

I won’t tell you how it ends. I will say that while I admire “at the corner of Miscue-Miscreance and Herbivory” for “На углу Кикса Кисляйства и Травоедения,” I don’t like the translation of the title: безобразие can mean ‘ugliness’ or ‘outrage, scandal, disgrace,’ but ‘chaos’ doesn’t work for me. I’m not sure how to improve it, though; maybe “Ugly Enchantment”?