More Untranslatable Words.

We’ve had some good discussions about “untranslatable words” (e.g., 2004, 2005, 2017), even though, as I wrote in the latter post,

I generally find lists of “untranslatable” words irritating; they tend to consist of variations on “comfortable” and “longing” plus a few implausible items alleged to mean, say, “the sensation of dipping your pinky finger into a pond freshly dappled by rain.”

Still, they can be more irritating or less, and this one from the Guardian is better than most, partly because it gives plenty of space for each word, so you can grasp some of the nuances. Of course it includes some of the tiresome usual suspects, like Finnish sisu and Russian toska (why doesn’t anyone ever mention, say, Russian плюсна [plyusná] ‘the part of the foot between the toes and ankle’?), but there are some goodies, like the first one, Spanish sobremesa:

Lunch – and it is more usually lunch than dinner – will long since have yielded to the important act of the sobremesa, that languid time when food gives way to hours of talking, drinking and joking. Coffee and digestivos will have been taken, or perhaps the large gin and tonic that follows a meal rather than precedes it here.

The sobremesa is a digestive period that allows for the slow settling of food, gossip, ideas and conversations. It is also a sybaritic time; a recognition that there is more to life than working long hours and that few pleasures are greater than sharing a table and then chatting nonsense for a hefty portion of what remains of the day.

A delightful word for a delightful practice! German Feierabend is similar, but post-work rather than post-lunch:

Dating back to the 16th century, the term Feierabend, or “celebration evening”, used to denote the evening before a public holiday, but has come to refer to the free time between leaving the office and bedtime on any working day.

The key to understanding Feierabend is that it isn’t time for going to the cinema or gym, but time for doing nothing. In 1880, the cultural historian Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl described the concept as “an atmosphere of carefree wellbeing, of deep inner reconciliation, of the pure and clear quiet of the evening”.

The description of Iranian ta’arof ‘politeness ritual’ is wonderful. And for once the comments are worth reading; people add their own candidates, like:

I always liked the Indonesian phrase on Bali of jam karat – which translates roughly as rubber time. A concept that refers to a sense of flexible meeting, the example I had was waiting for about 90 minutes for a sunrise fishing trip. When the fisherman arrived, 90 minutes late he shrugged and said “jam karat!”

Thanks, AJP and Eric!

The Dominance of English.

Jacob Mikanowski’s long article “Behemoth, bully, thief: how the English language is taking over the planet” makes lots of points, some purely rhetorical (“There is no reason for any particular language to be worshipped around the world like a golden idol”) and some of more particularity, like Anna Wierzbicka’s description of English’s subconscious system of values. It’s well worth reading for its enjoyable combination of simmering outrage and interesting information; I’m going to single out this passage, which both surprised and shocked me:

Yet the influence of English now goes beyond simple lexical borrowing or literary influence. Researchers at the IULM University in Milan have noticed that, in the past 50 years, Italian syntax has shifted towards patterns that mimic English models, for instance in the use of possessives instead of reflexives to indicate body parts and the frequency with which adjectives are placed before nouns. German is also increasingly adopting English grammatical forms, while in Swedish its influence has been changing the rules governing word formation and phonology.

It’s bad enough that languages are dying right and left, but the ones that are left shouldn’t be deformed to resemble the hegemonic language that Mikanowski compares to a supermassive black hole! (Thanks, Trevor and Eric.)

Voradlberg, du bisch mis Paradies!

Trond Engen wrote me as follows:

I recently learned that the Austrian state of Vorarlberg (“Voradelberg” for locals) for some years has been holding an annual competition in popular music in the dialect, and the response and quality has been much better than initially expected, with contributions from a wide field of popular music. The report of this year’s competition here … complete with links to the songs with texts and all. And if that’s not enough, last year’s competitors are here.

I finally got around to checking it out, and it’s really delightful dialect; I draw my title from this song (to a very familiar tune):

Wo i läb, wo i bin, do bisch du und viel anders, und do gits an Afang und a End, was globscht denn du? Voradlberg, Voradlberg, du bisch mis Paradies, fühl i mi, gschpür i di, säg i „Vergelts Gott“ und freu mi. Sieach i des Läba, des Gschenk was nix koscht, hör i i mis Härz ine: „Freier Geischt, freie Seel“, rüafts i minam Härza.

Unrelated, but I can’t resist mentioning the shipment of books that arrived today from my fave Russian bookstore, which had a sale just when I was feeling the need to add to my shelves (you can see images of the covers in the “Most recent activity” box on my Librarything page):

Dostoevsky, Собрание повестей и романов в одном томе (collected stories, 1424 pp.!)
Dostoevsky, Бесы [The Devils]
Bunin, Полное собрание рассказов в одном томе (complete collected stories, 1117 pp.!)
Gorky, Детство/В людях/Мои университеты (trilogy of memoirs)
Kozma Prutkov, Зри в корень! [Behold the root!] (I’ve wanted a collection of his brilliantly silly aphorisms and other works for years)

I confess I get just as excited waiting for books to arrive as I did at fourteen waiting for science fiction magazines to show up in the mail. I told my wife if I ever start being indifferent to such things, check for a pulse.


I wrote back in 2007 “I still haven’t actually read much of Bakhtin (on whose smoking habits I reported here, and with whose concept of ‘reported speech’ I had fun here), but I keep coming across things that make me want to read more,” and now I’m finally determined to get a handle on him. Unfortunately his own writings are notoriously verbose and hard to pin down (I blame his youthful immersion in neo-Kantian German philosophy), so I’m working my way through Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson — I’ve long been a fan of Morson’s literary criticism, so I figured if anyone could make me understand Bakhtin, he could. And it’s working: I’m about halfway through, and I think I’m grasping it pretty well (and confirming that his emphasis on the importance of multiple points of view is close to my own sense of things). But there’s something that’s irritating me, and I’m going to get it off my chest.

Remember when I complained about the use of “sublate” to render Hegel’s aufheben, rendering an already difficult author even more difficult? Well, this is the same sort of thing. Bakhtin uses the perfectly ordinary Russian word незавершенность ‘incompleteness’ to express one of his basic ideas; Morson and Emerson say “It designates a complex of values central to his thinking: innovation, ‘surprisingness,’ the genuinely new, openness, potentiality, freedom, and creativity—terms that he also uses frequently.” Unfortunately, for reasons best known to themselves they translate it by the rebarbative term “unfinalizability,” which takes twice as long to say and makes me stumble every time it occurs in the text (which is very often).

But even worse is what they do with another of his basic terms, разноречие. This echt-Russian word is composed of the very common elements разно- ‘different, varying’ and реч- ‘speech’; it has meant ‘contradiction,’ ‘disagreement,’ and the like (Melnikov-Pechersky: “― И тут многое непонятно, так много разноречий” [Here too there is much that is incomprehensible, so much contradiction]; Evgeny Vodolazkin: “Разноречие источников приводило Амброджо в смятение” [The disagreement of the sources led Ambrogio into confusion]), but it has an archaic ring these days. Bakhtin uses it to express his view that “there are always many different ways of speaking, many ‘languages,’ reflecting the diversity of social experience, conceptualizations, and values” (which he contrasts to structuralism’s view of language as “a system of abstract norms” — for Bakhtin, language is always grounded in a particular time and place and comes from a particular person, it is never abstract). This is an important and useful concept that has spread widely among different disciplines; unfortunately it has done so under the guise of the ostentatiously Greco-Latin “heteroglossia,” the translation that has become standard. For me, it is a perfect expression of the scholarly attraction to twenty-dollar words that gave us “sublate,” and I grind my teeth when I think about it. Bakhtin could perfectly well have created a Russian word гетероглоссия [geteroglossia] if he’d wanted to — it would have carried the same “screw you, peasant, you’re not educated enough to appreciate my refined thought” air the English one does. But no, he used a down-home word that any Russian could understand at first glance. Of course he used it in a specialized sense, but a translation like “difference” (or, if you wanted to be really cheeky and confuse the hell out of people, “différance“) could equally well be so used. Or, if you wanted to preserve the archaic flavor of the Russian, you could go with “gainsay(ing),” which has a similar archaic/homey feel in English. But no, we must keep the hoi polloi from polluting the rarefied air of our scholarly discourse. Fie, I say!

Turgenev’s Smoke.

Context is all. I recently complained about Dostoevsky’s Игрок [The Gambler], but now that I’ve finished Turgenev’s fifth novel Дым [Smoke], published in the same year (1867) and also set in Baden, I have a far greater respect for the former. I feel that Dostoevsky found a new dimension for literature, and once you’ve gotten accustomed to it everything else seems flat. Fine, the characters are cardboard and the plot is kind of silly, but Dostoevsky’s language and way of telling a story are intoxicating, and The Gambler is inferior only when compared to greater Dostoevsky novels. When compared to Turgenev — a fine novelist! — it shines.

I’m going to quote in extenso from The Cambridge History of Russian Literature, because Richard Freeborn’s chapter on the 1855-80 period is excellent and his description of the novel is thorough and satisfying from a certain point of view, a point of view which is alien to me:
[Read more…]


This Wordorigins thread about the origin of “(in a) jiffy” (summary: origin unknown) is interesting mainly for sidelights like:

In the early 1900s, an American physicist Gilbert Newton Lewis (known for coining the word photon) seized upon the word jiffy and gave it a standard scientific definition of 33.3564 picoseconds. One jiffy, Lewis explained, was the amount of time it takes light to travel one centimetre, a meaning he introduced in his research in the 1920s. So next time someone says they’ll do something in a jiffy, remind them that that gives them precisely 33 millionths of a second to respond……

But the main reason I’m posting about it is as an excuse to reproduce the following from Dave Wilton, which made me chortle:

Someone (IIRC it was Johnny Carson) once defined a New York minute as the time it takes between a traffic light turning green and the car behind you honking for you to go.

In non-chronological units, a millihelen is the amount of beauty required to launch one ship.


The BBC’s A to Z(ed) of Isms series of short video clips includes Britishisms (2:43), worth watching just for the beguiling narration by Ian McMillan (“known for his strong and distinctive Barnsley-area accent”); I, for one, was familiar neither with numpty nor mucker. And it uses the fine linguisticism isogloss, to boot. Thanks, Trevor!

Yuri Felzen.

Bryan Karetnyk, translator of the wonderful Gaito Gazdanov, has a LARB essay on another émigré author, the now-forgotten Yuri Felzen (Юрий Фельзен; Karetnyk for some reason spells it Felsen). After a description of Felzen’s murder in Auschwitz II-Birkenau in early 1943, he continues:

In all likelihood, you have never heard of Yuri Felsen. He plied his art in emigration in Europe, and so was already marginalized and at a significant disadvantage. Writing “difficult” prose and being labeled “a writer’s writer” sunk his chances for fame still lower. Moreover, his terrible end was followed by the mysterious disappearance of his archive, so in addition to what he published, only a handful of his letters survive, and not a single clear photograph of him remains. And yet, for all that fate seemingly tried to efface this man and plunge him into obscurity, he nevertheless left an utterly distinct, if now faint, mark.

I first encountered his curiously un-Russian surname several years ago, as I was reading Gaito Gazdanov’s “Literary Professions” (1934), one of his notorious polemics on the state of Russian literature in exile. [Gazdanov exempted Felzen from his dismissal of most writers of the emigration aside from Nabokov.]

[Read more…]

Absolutely No Jargon.

Mike Walker gave a LangSec Workshop talk, “Persuasive Language for Language Security,” that Anatoly says is mainly for programmers but that I think is of wider interest, at least this part:

At DARPA the rules about language are simple; they’re named [Heilmeier]’s Catechism. Rule Number One goes like this:

“What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.”

Absolutely no jargon. Jargon is the fundamental building block of our field. When we do our work well we get to create new jargon; we call this novelty. Here are some examples of real conversations I had in government. After a talk during which I was challenged to explain the difference between dynamic and symbolic execution, I was taken aside and counseled to stop using the term “concrete input” because construction references would confuse people.

I was informed that a network monitoring approach was so effective that it continually discovered zero-day malware. To this day I don’t know what that means.

While I caught these instances, the ones that haunt me are the ones that slipped by me unnoticed; conversations filled with Rorschach blots where words spoken by one party constructed a completely different meaning in the mind of the recipients. In a culture where everyone’s an expert, nobody can ask for clarification.

These are little stories about the imperfections of language, yet my
assertion is that language is imperfect and dangerous. The danger lies in the summoning power of words. Reagan said that “if you’re explaining, you’re losing” and truer words were never spoken. The power of that statement is that no one ever needs to explain it, which is telling. You’ll find that in places where power is aggregated and used, there is an enormous focus on the economy and precision of language. Your public words will be handed back to you filled not with objections to what you are saying but rather with objections to what people will think you said. A historical wasteland of blowback craters has taught the immune systems of government never to write a long letter when an empty one will do. This is an important lesson, and it would have served the hacker community well.

The point is not, of course, that no one should use jargon, which is indispensable for communication within a group. The point is that you need to learn how to avoid it when communicating with people outside the group, and this is a very hard lesson to learn and apply.

Anatoly ends his post by quoting this delightful anecdote, and I will follow his example:

I had the chance to talk to a lot of smart people; one of them was a young roboticist from MIT […] and I asked this young man what the word Cyber meant. He told me that cyber was a word used exclusively by people in government to let everyone know that they didn’t understand how computers worked. I think maybe he was on to something. I think this definition is still universally accepted in the hacker community.

Note that I have corrected Walker’s spelling of the name Heilmeier. He has his concerns as a programmer; I have mine as an editor.


Q.Z. Lau wrote me as follows:

As a regular reader of Language Hat and the website’s emphasis on languages and linguistic culture, I thought I might suggest for your and Language Hat readers’ interest a project that I moderate – r/translator on Reddit. We’re a community that helps people translate things, including many things of historical, familial, or cultural importance.

Of particular note are our open ‘Unknown’ requests, often of language content that people still have no clue what it is.

Looked worth posting to me, so here it is!