The Macedonian ‘Moby-Dick’ Translator.

Filip Stojanovski reports on a remarkable translator:

The death of linguist Ognen Čemerski on August 25, cut down in his prime at age 42 by cancer, has shocked the Macedonian public. […] As a translator, Čemerski left a lasting cultural legacy by providing a new translation of the classic American novel “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville, and most media outlets stressed that within their obituaries.

The main problem of translating a book from 1851 about sailing and whaling was that the Macedonian language lacked maritime terminology. Most of the ethnic Macedonian population had been landlocked during the last centuries, having little contact with the sea in general and sailing in particular. In order to overcome this, Čemerski had to re-construct the vocabulary by first discovering the origins of the English terms, and then trace their equivalents in Macedonian or other Slavic languages.

As he pointed out in a podcast published by Graceland University staff in 2016, Čemerski also had to deconstruct the nuances of the English language used by Melville. This included influences of earlier authors such as Shakespeare and Milton, and the use of dialects of the Quakers – a religious group that ran the sailing industry — which sounded archaic even to mid-19th-century American readers. When dealing with literary references, he relied on translations of classic English works by other Macedonian translators and archaic language found in preserved writings by Macedonian authors from the same time period and in religious literature written in Old Church Slavonic.

By far the biggest challenge faced by Čemerski was the lack of Macedonian vocabulary for everyday terms used by American sailors to designate parts of the ships, which had become commonplace words in the English language. By researching the origins of these words, he was able to find equivalents in the Macedonian words used by various craftsmen, from carpenters to masons to farmers, since all technology used on sailing ships originated on land.

He also investigated fishermen jargon stemming from the dialects used by Macedonians living around the three big lakes in the country (Ohrid, Prespa and Dojran). Historically, these people used various kinds of row boats to go about their trade, and their terminology could be transposed to parts of sailing ships. Additionally, Čemerski compared the development of maritime terminology in other Slavic languages, in particular those used along the coast of the Adriatic Sea.

No wonder it took him over a decade. Thanks, Matt!

Global Medieval Sourcebook.

More online goodness; Allison Meier reports for Hyperallergic:

Images from medieval manuscripts have had something of a revival on social media, with viral accounts sharing their strange scenes of bizarre beasts or cavorting knights and monks. Yet the reading of those manuscripts by non-scholars remains low, partly due to a lack of access. The recently launched Global Medieval Sourcebook (GMS), curated by Stanford University faculty and students, offers English versions of previously untranslated Middle Ages literature.

“These images are often shared without text, and it can be hard to contextualize them if you’re outside of a formal educational environment, without access to books on the topic, and with no real way to sift through information that is out there,” Mae Lyons-Penner, a PhD student in comparative literature and the GMS project manager, told Hyperallergic. “That’s a barrier that we hope to break down by presenting a diverse array of short medieval texts within their cultural and historical context: sharing what we know about who produced them, who read them, what their importance was, and how it has shaped the way we think about the Middle Ages today.”

The initial offerings of the online compendium, which will be expanded as the GMS develops, range from a 15th-century song translated from Middle French that bemoans a lost love (“Two or three days ago / my sweet love went away / without saying anything to me. Alas, who will comfort me?”) to five selections from Hong Mai’s 12th-century Yijian Zhi (or, Record of the Listener […]), a sprawling 420-chapter chronicle that is an invaluable record of society, spirituality, and culture of the Southern Song Dynasty. The GMS is, as suggested by its title, a globally focused resource, with plans for medieval texts translated from Arabic, Chinese, Old Spanish, Latin, Middle High German, Old English, and Old French. […]

Academics are being invited to contribute short introductions, sometimes accompanied by an audio recording and high-resolution image of the original manuscript. The new English translations are readable alongside the source language. “To create a diverse collection, we have enthusiastically solicited material from genres that are rarely if ever found together in modern editions of medieval texts: songs, sermons, sexually explicit short stories, and summaries of world history are only a few of the genres we are currently working on,” Lyons-Penner said.

Visit the link to read some delightful snippets of the texts; the pull-down language menu includes Old Welsh, but alas, there aren’t any examples yet. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Glossing Africa.

Namwali Serpell at NYRDaily writes about an interesting topic that I haven’t seen much discussion of:

Whenever African writers are on a panel together, we are asked about the continent as a whole—its literature, its future, its political woes and economic potential. Whenever African writers get together on our own, we talk about glossaries. These additions to the main text, often vetted, if not entirely decided, by publishers, are crucial to how it will be received by readers. But when African writers talk about glossaries, we don’t just exchange tips. (How long? How comprehensive? By whom?) We talk about whether to include one at all, whether to offer glosses within the text or omit all glossing entirely. To gloss, or not to gloss? That is the question.

Most of us reading in the postcolonies never received glosses for the strange foods and weather of Europe. We had to figure out what snow and crumpets were on our own. […]

The politics of language in African literature have long been fraught. The very first conference on the subject, “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression,” held in Makerere in 1962, began by begging the question of its own title. Why was most extant African literature written in European languages? the writers wondered. Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, in attendance, would decide within a decade that he would henceforth write only in his native language, Gĩkũyũ. He has nevertheless translated all of his Gĩkũyũ novels into English—full-scale glossaries, so to speak. A footnote to his Devil on the Cross reads: “In the original work, written in Gĩkũyũ, certain words and phrases appear in English, French, Latin and Swahili. In this translation all such words and phrases are printed in italic type.” This is a neat obverse of the norm: in many Anglophone African novels, the words from African languages are italicized. This is the other perennial question African writers toss around when we are alone together. To italicize, or not to italicize? […]

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s brilliant novel Kintu, reissued this past May in the US by the independent press Transit Books, doesn’t have a glossary (nor a map nor a family tree). It does, however, italicize non-English words. It offers an object lesson in how African writers these days gloss words without a glossary. Within two pages, Makumbi adopts three modes of glossing.

You’ll have to click the link to learn about the three modes; me, I now want to read Kintu. Thanks, Trevor!

The Stoop.

The Stoop (to quote their website) “is a podcast about blackness, race, and identity in America, hosted by Leila Day and Hana Baba.” I’m not much of a podcast person, but I was listening to my local NPR station, WFCR, and heard a snippet of what sounded like a really interesting episode, “The problem with sounding white”: “We explore voice and unpack what it means linguistically, socially, and professionally when you’re black but supposedly ‘sound white.'” It caught my attention right away by repeating, with gusto, the phrase “interdental fricative,” and went on to discuss code-switching, linguistic profiling, and other related matters. It ends with a talk with poet Chinaka Hodge, who studied linguistics with Renée Blake; she says when she’s told she sounds white, she says: “Do I sound white like a Scottish person? Do I sound white like a Brahmin?” She mentions Blake’s concept of “r-fulness” and gives examples. All in all, it’s a great way to spend 18 minutes, and I highly recommend it.

The World at One.

I love discovering new poets who give me the same kind of thrill as my old favorites, and the latest is Kate Bingham, whose “The World at One” was published in the New Statesman last year:

I lie in bed until The World at One,
why should my heart go off with an alarm?
The body’s woman’s work is never done,

the blood gets up to exercise the lungs.
The kettle sings, I count my lucky charms –
a chain connects and separates each one

and when I shake my wrist it shakes the sun
that scatters off the wall and scalds my arm.
It’s only skin and coffee, no harm done.

War continues, voting has begun;
my left-hand thumb elects my right-hand palm.
We couldn’t all go on to be someone.

I have a little silver house to run,
a silver Scottie dog to keep me calm.
I don’t remember everything I’ve done

but bring me pencil, paper, chewing gum
and I will stay at home and do no harm,
imagining myself a world for one
where what I did was what I should have done.

The easy mastery of iambic pentameter, the simple lines that sink instantly into the memory (“the blood gets up to exercise the lungs”; “and when I shake my wrist it shakes the sun”), the lovely use of repetition and variation — that’s real poetry, folks. Her latest collection, Infragreen, was published by Seren in 2015. It has a beautiful cover and I’ll bet the poems are just as good as this one.

A Novel of Cosmopolitan Alexandria.

Yitzhak Gormezano Goren writes about his 1978 novel Alexandrian Summer, described at the time as “An achievement and innovation in Hebrew Literature,” and its belated translation into English; I thought the last couple of paragraphs were particularly interesting:

During the process of working with Yardenne Greenspan, the translator, I realized to my surprise that Alexandrian Summer is very difficult to render in another language and another mentality, mainly because of its use of multiple languages (English, French, Judeo-Spanish, Turkish, Greek, Italian and Arabic) that were typical to cosmopolitan Alexandria. As simple and naturalistic as its style seemed, on the surface, it was extremely important not to lose the poetic and mythical undertone. The translation and its editing helped in capturing the soul and essence of the book—that elusive and magical Mediterranean ambiance. But more than that—bestowing the work, in another language, with the right PACE! As a man of the theater, I recognize the importance of pace.

I must confess that when I wrote the novel back in the 1970s, I was very pleased with the simplicity of my Hebrew, devoid of flowery mannerism. But my editor at Am Oved publishing house insisted on “elevating” my style. I tried my best to simplify his changes, but living abroad meant every communication went through mail (no email in those good old days), and since it was my first novel, there was a limit to what I could accomplish. So the Hebrew version still has a few archaic elements I was forced to put up with—after all, as a young writer, I had to be thankful they’d even accepted my novel. Now, nearly forty years later, this fresh English version is a kind of vindication, closer to my initial intention, and has inspired me to republish the novel in Hebrew with some of those alterations. It may be that this extinct novel about a vanished Alexandria is coming back to life as a true “achievement and innovation in Hebrew literature.”

I’m glad he was finally able to get his style de-elevated!

Google Noto.

This report by Patrick Burgoyne is a year old now, but has only recently come to my attention, and I thought I’d see what you people think (I’m sure those of you who know about typefaces have long been familiar with it):

In what is being billed as one of the largest typeface projects in human history, Google and Monotype have collaborated to create a unifying system that spans more than 100 writing systems, 800 languages, and hundreds of thousands of characters. Some of the languages featured have never been digitised before and have only previously existed as inscriptions on stone or on ancient documents.

The name, Noto, comes from Google’s initial brief to Monotype which was ‘no more tofu’. ‘Tofu’ is the nickname used for the blank boxes that appear when a computer or website is unable to display a particular character because there is no font support for that language. Google’s challenge was to create fonts for all of the 800 languages included in the Unicode Consortium standard for software internationalisation, which includes many little-spoken or so-called ‘dead’ languages, thus eradicating ‘tofu’ from our screens. For each language, Noto includes letters in multiple serif and sans serif styles across up to eight weights, as well as numbers, emoji, symbols and musical notation.

The project involved hundreds of researchers, designers, linguists, cultural experts and project managers around the world. To create the Tibetan characters, Monotype worked with Tibetan monks and Buddhist scholars. Fulani speakers from West Africa have been provided with the first digital alphabet in their language, while there is even a version in Ogham, the Old Irish script used between the first and sixth centuries.

Seems like a good idea, and I like the fact that they handle Fulani and Ogham, but I’m sure there are problems with it, because there are problems with everything.


My wife asked me what the name “Pasadena” meant, so of course I looked it up in Gudde’s California Place Names (a wonderful book — see this 2004 post), and the etymology was so interesting I thought I’d pass it along here:

Pasadena (pas ə dē’ nə) [Los Angeles Co.]. The community was founded in 1874 and called Indiana Colony because the original promoters came from Indiana. When the post office was established in 1875, another name had to be chosen, and rarely have pioneer settlers gone to more trouble to select a name for their town than the good people of Indiana Colony. Hiram Reid’s account of the naming (pp. 338 ff.) sounds more convincing than various other stories: Judge B. S. Eaton, in discussing with another stockholder, Calvin Fletcher, the possibility of finding a suitable Spanish name for the proposed post office, recalled a conversation he had had with Manuel Garfias, the patentee of Rancho San Pascual, on part of which the town was situated. When asked why he had chosen so impractical a place for his house, Garfias replied, “Porque es la llave del Rancho.” Fletcher was disappointed, because “yavvey,” the only word he caught, would never do for a place name. Judge Eaton then translated Garfias’s reply as ‘key of the rancho.’ This was at least a cue to a suitable name. Dr. T. B. Elliott, the president of the Indiana Colony, then took up the idea. He wrote to a friend who was a missionary among the Chippewa Indians in the Mississippi Valley for an Indian version of ‘Key of the Ranch,’ or ‘Entrance to the Upper Part of the Valley’, and received in due course these suggestions: Weoquân Pâ sâ de ná ‘Crown of the Valley’; Gish kâ de ná Pâ sâ de ná ‘Peak of the Valley’; Tape Dâegun Pâ sâ de ná ‘Key of the Valley’; Pe quâ de na Pâ sâ de ná ‘Hill of the Valley’. Since Dr. Elliott could not very well propose the name Tapedaegunpasadena or Weoquanpasadena, he quietly dropped the specific part and submitted to the townspeople the pleasing and euphonious name Pasadena. The interpretation that Pasadena alone means ‘crown of the valley’ has persisted until the present day. As for the original Chippewa word, it can be identified with passadina ‘there is a valley’ (Frederick Baraga, Dictionary of the Otchipwe language [Montreal, 1878]).

The Pasadena in Texas is named after the one in California. Don’t ask me why Dr. Elliott wrote to a missionary in the Mississippi Valley for a suitable name for a place in California, because I have no answer for you.

The Browning Easter Egg.

I was looking through my ancient (corrected edition 1961, Third Printing) copy of Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol when my eye hit upon something that must have puzzled me when I first read the book in college, but of course pretty much everything puzzled me then (ah, youth!), so I moved on and forgot it. Now I thought “I’ll bet the internet will solve this for me,” and sure enough it did. From Alex Beam’s The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship:

The final chapter, 6, re-creates an exchange between the author and his publisher, Laughlin, “in Utah, sitting in the lounge of an Alpine hotel.” Laughlin is badgering Nabokov to tell the reader what Gogol’s books are about: “I have gone through it carefully, and so has my wife, and we have not found the plots.” Nabokov tells the reader that he tacked on a seven-page chronology, with plot summaries, to placate Laughlin. Clearly he thought Laughlin wouldn’t read the addendum, because he inserted this random sentence into the recitation of Gogol’s life: “Browning’s door is preserved in the library of Wellesley College.” [It is.] The Robert Browning “Easter egg”—computer lingo for a hidden joke—survived the 1959 and 1961 reeditions of Nikolai Gogol, but later vanished from the text.

And an excellent joke it is, though hard on the poor puzzled student. (The diligent ctrl-F’er will find it used in sly homage on this критика page.)

World Density of Languages.

Benjamin Hennig at Geographical posts about a very nice visualization:

The Glottolog database was used in this month’s cartogram to highlight the geographic distribution of language diversity around the world. The main locations of each entry from the database were used to calculate the density (and diversity) of languages in their spatial distribution. The cartogram therefore shows larger areas where there is a relatively higher diversity of languages. This is also reflected in the differently shaded colours overlaid.

The highest language diversity in the world can be found in Africa and Asia, both with more than 2,000 living tongues. At the other end of the geographic spectrum lies Europe with only around 250 living languages and dialects spoken.

Note that the first map has no labels; scroll down for the one with labels (which you can, as they say, click to embiggen).